It is becoming increasingly clear that Brexit is serving as the trigger for a culture war involving universities. As with virtually everything that surrounds Brexit, the manifest causes and symptoms of this may have nothing to do with the European Union, and may not even have very much to do with universities as they actually exist. But Brexit is all about political theatre, in which symbols and mythical creatures are invoked and slayed, and higher education is becoming one of the imagined demons that supposedly stands in the hero’s path.

For those who have little knowledge of higher education – how it works, how it succeeds, the strains and risks it currently faces – this is a fabulous opportunity to unleash resentment on what appear from a distance like citadels of privilege and arrogance. That resentment must have been brewing for some time to have reached these proportions, but is now being fed daily by right-wing newspapers (both broadsheet and tabloid) with the help of the more outrageous Brexiteers, such as Chris Heaton-Harris MP.

Each conservative newspaper and strain of conservative ideology has its cherished fantasy of what must surely be going on inside universities. For The Times, and its neo-con Atlanticist commentators, the fantasy has been lifted from America: academics are now therapists for their students, protecting them from dissenting voices. For The Mail and The Telegraph, universities are a conspiracy against Brexit, brainwashing their students with liberal cosmopolitan propaganda. For reactionary Blairites, there are now simply too many universities, producing too many graduates for the post-Brexit labour market, and too many over-paid academics. Finally, there is still the steady drip-drip of neoliberalism emanating from government, which views universities as a cartel that needs dismantling via ever more competition and auditing. In this climate, it feels almost surreal to remember that Britain is home to five of the top 25 universities in the world. But perhaps that’s partly the appeal, for those wishing to take a pot-shot at them.

If universities didn’t exist, these voices would need to invent them, if only for their own therapeutic purposes. The university has become a simulacrum onto which the anger and resentments of contemporary conservatives can be poured. It is a type of voodoo doll through which to harm one’s enemies, but which (unlike more diffuse alien forces) has the advantage of being present, tangible and visible in the here and now. Alternatively, it is a bad luck charm, that has been hovering in the background causing Britain (or, rather, England) to become corroded by the three Ms: modernity, multiculturalism and millennials. As the frustrations of the Brexit process and long transition kick in, universities (and experts) may serve again as villains for some.

The realities of teaching and research typically go unexplored, because they are largely unknown to those developing these narratives. Nor is the reality of much interest or use to those newspapers and politicians: it is largely irrelevant to their needs, vis a vis the emerging culture war and generational outrage. One of the few ways in which reasonable public discussion of universities is possible is in terms of economics, especially regarding the fiscal and financial questions of how to fund undergraduate tuition. But even this suffers the major defect of viewing the world in exclusively monetary terms, failing to take seriously the political injustices and psychological stresses of the current model. In any case, this is not really a Brexit issue.

Joining the culture war?

This culture war is not going to subside quickly, and the disappointments of ‘actually existing Brexit’ may mean it actually escalates, not just in relation to universities but in other directions too. Universities, individual academics and even students will experience it in periodic revelations of practices that are deemed anti-Brexit, anti-British, excessively liberal, excessively illiberal, too commercial, too anti-commercial, and so on. These will invariably be lifted out of context in order to fit the narrative – there are plenty of examples of how this has already been done. Moreover, it will not only be targeted against the familiar avant-garde institutions on the margins, but is now aimed squarely at Oxbridge and Russell Group universities, giving a hint as to how manic and reckless these new strands of conservatism have become.

Universities will probably need to hire more PR specialists, just as governments need to hire more cyber-security specialists. Propaganda requires rebutting. But that cannot be enough. There is also a question as to where universities stand intellectually amidst all of this.

The first thing to accept is that universities are indeed part of the cultural and political ruptures that are taking place. The position of disinterested observer is not a credible option. The geography of Remain closely reflects the distribution of expert knowledge in English society, not just in terms of the location of universities, but also in the location of knowledge intensive, high value-added work. Specifically, that means university cities (Norwich, Exeter, Leicester, Newcastle) and the triangle connecting London, Bristol and Oxford, in addition to large metropolises (London, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool). This is a similar geo-cultural sorting effect as the one that’s been underway in the United States since Nixon, but previously disguised in Britain by anachronistic party-political affiliations.

Universities are not and cannot be ‘neutral’ on Brexit in the way that their political critics might demand. They require and offer forms of international connectivity, just as finance or big business does. Their criteria of value do transcend cultural and political barriers: for all its imperfections, that is what blind peer review seeks to achieve. The fact that universities attract more populist ire than either finance or big business is partly due to the fact that they do not celebrate the profit motive, producing the suspicion (amongst those that cannot conceive of international coordination other than in capitalist terms) that they must be some sort of conspiracy. The irony is that they have been compelled to act in an increasingly businesslike way over the past 30 years or so, and increasingly viewed as economic assets to ‘UK PLC’ and regional economies.

Yet this latter fact has probably exacerbated resentment even further, because (in contrast to a vision of academia as intellectually rich but economically disinterested) it means that universities become centres of both economic and cultural privilege, as, for example, advocated by Richard Florida. If the reality of academia was still as it was in the 1970s, it is difficult to imagine how populists could channel much rage against it, despite the much more leisurely culture that pervaded campuses back then. It’s the idea that privilege snowballs – collecting money, knowledge, cultural distinction, political influence, then more money – that is perhaps understandably irksome to outsiders. As Hannah Arendt wrote, “there is hardly a political figure more likely to arouse justified suspicion than the professional truthteller who has discovered some happy coincidence between truth and interest”. If today’s students are unusually internationalist in their outlook, this must have far more to do with the prevalence of free market orthodoxy in universities than with ‘socialism’ or ‘identity politics’, which aren’t remotely as widespread or powerful as the fantasists would like to believe.

A central challenge for higher education policy and university governance today is how to weaken some of the cultural and economic barriers separating universities from the rest of society. The multi-billion dollar question is whether that can be done in ways that don’t simply exact gratuitous punishment on one of Britain’s last remaining world-class sectors. The epistemological question is whether it can be done without destroying what distinguishes universities from consultancy outfits, charities or think tanks.

Towards understanding

Then take the problem known as ‘bias’, which received heated debate following Chris Heaton-Harris’s ill-conceived intervention (and which I’ve had personal experience of handling following this article). The newspaper stories on this blow over relatively quickly (though not without causing sometimes considerable stress to individuals involved), but what is left is a damaging vision of what good teaching consists of. Just as the concept of ‘impartiality’ often leads the BBC into some dark cul-de-sacs (for instance giving Lord Lawson a platform to contradict climate science), the concept of ‘bias’ implies that good teaching is that which is ‘unbiased’ or presents students with ‘all sides’ of an argument.

This in turn implies that there is nothing outside of the various warring perspectives (of social media, newspapers, BBC Question Time etc etc) which can be grasped, as a vaguely secure premise on which to form a judgement and an analysis. There are simply various viewpoints and positions, each of which needs to be listed and narrated by the ‘unbiased’ teacher. By denying that there are superior and inferior ways of approaching a question or problem, this is an invitation to ‘post-truth’ politics. In the hands of more ruthless conservative strategists, it becomes a trick through which to push discredited (sometimes even dangerous) views into the mainstream.

I teach a module which looks at theories of elite power, which Brexit has made increasingly relevant to contemporary politics. I now teach it using Brexit as a repeated example, and this year added in new materials relating to contemporary populism. What I want is not to shape a student’s ‘opinion’ or ‘preference’ or ‘identity’, but to help them understand what is going on. To suggests that I or any other lecturer can lead (let alone ‘brainwash’) students into adopting a given political position is like suggesting that lawyers are responsible for the moral decision-making of their clients.

There is, in my view, something both liberating and exciting about the discovery that the world is amenable to critical scrutiny of a sort that doesn’t simply collapse back into a ‘perspective’ or ‘take’. Part of the difficulty of grappling with something like Brexit is that the populist critique of the British establishment clearly has some empirical validity: surely Britain has developed unaccountable and undemocratic concentrations of power and wealth, though not necessarily the ones targeted by Nigel Farage. This is the uncomfortable, ambiguous and complicated reality that needs to be confronted, and which is ducked as soon as you replace it with matters of ‘political perspective’.

For some strange reason, the journalists who grandly view themselves as defenders of ‘Enlightenment’ and ‘free speech’ also have a very distorted view of what goes on in classrooms or research institutes. Perhaps due to their own biographies, they tend to see universities primarily as debating clubs; and yet teaching and learning can be far more fulfilling, illuminating and downright difficult than the flippant, gamesmanship of Oxbridge Union Societies. Again, we encounter a fixation on a simulacrum: unwilling to think through enlightenment in all its historical and philosophical complexity, many would rather use the image of a debating chamber instead.

To understand something is indeed a delicate balance, but it’s not the same balance as that which resists ‘bias’ or which ensures both ‘sides’ are equally heard. It requires the ability to see how someone else’s worldview fits together and makes sense, while retaining ideas and evidence of one’s own. It pays respect to the coherence of another’s world, while adding further explanatory resources (such as historical or economic context) to it. That way, it becomes possible to think culturally and economically at the same time, something that is absolutely necessary to any good critical-empirical analysis of populism. It is also (drawing on the work of Max Weber and Luc Boltanski) what I’ve sought to do with my work on neoliberalism, using the history of ideas to illuminate how a worldview possesses the authority that it does.

Of course universities are critical of Brexit, but ‘criticise’ does not mean ‘oppose’ (a theatre critic does not oppose theatre). A critique is a judgement, that may be formed through a combination of empirical and theoretical analysis. And a good critic is not one who has no preferences or biases whatsoever, but one who is able to acknowledge them, and nevertheless produce useful, interesting and compelling narratives even for those who disagree with them. As any good scientist knows (and Immanuel Kant’s philosophy is premised upon) good critique works in spite of the limitations, frailties and positioning of the human mind, partly by recognising what those are.

A great deal of the analysis surrounding Brexit does nothing to aid understanding, and actually mitigates against it. For example, academics who simply point to opinion polling showing that ‘immigration’ was what prompted many people to vote Leave don’t make any attempt to balance sympathy with critique, but simply repeat  attitudes that are already heavily represented. We enter the realm of tautologies, in which ‘Brexit’ means Brexit and ‘less immigration’ means less immigration. You don’t need a theoretically trained scholar to do this job. Conversely, the economistic perspective too often pulls Brexit to pieces, dragging it into the realm of the ‘irrational’, leaving explanation for this event impossible. It is also, in my view, true that if academics do use lectures to vent frustrations, they are forgoing an opportunity to explore more interesting and fruitful forms of critique, while reinforcing the sense that ‘critique’ is born only out of antipathy.

While it will not remotely satisfy The Daily Mail, surely the only viable path for universities and scholars in an ensuing culture war is to make the case for critical and empirical understanding. Britain (and England in particular) needs to work out who and what the hell it is, as a matter of urgency. As with this deservedly-celebrated FT article on Blackpool or this historical and geographic contextualisation in New Left Review (or these pieces on Trump), the combination of qualitative and quantitative, cultural and economic, analysis offers something that could serve for greater mutual understanding, that strives to judge history and power rather than individuals or their identities, in the way that an increasingly sadistic media establishment seeks. That could be a politically appealing proposition.

Neoliberalism has meant that universities have mastered the arts of economic justification. Their financial acumen, their marketing rhetoric, their calculations of graduate employability are now far more advanced than they were in the 1980s. They are no longer permitted to absent themselves from broader economic discourses or the capitalist obligation to compete. Brexit means that universities may now have to master equivalent skills in political and cultural justification. There is no point denying that there are forces pitted against them, many of which simply want to disempower them. But to simply join a culture war on the same terms as the instigators is to invite deadlock. The question is whether the university can be represented in public as something other than a hoarder of privilege and a purveyor of abstraction. And if that’s to be more than another propaganda exercise, that will mean universities deciding what they wish to be, other than hoarders of privilege and purveyors of abstraction.


This blogpost presents the views and arguments of Will Davies, and does not represent the position of Goldsmiths.