Bringing the Culture War to Campus

Unwilling to take on the economic elite which is to blame for growing inequality, the Tory government has decided to turn the public's attention to a war against different enemy – students and universities.

It’s easy to see why commentators on the centre to the (increasingly far) right would prefer the rough and tumble of the culture war to the tedium of poring through government documents. Breaking the story of how some minute tweak to a tax code or planning permission application process could leave thousands without jobs or further entrench monied elites gets one pushed far from the front page, while announcing that you are leaving your job is a trending topic, with coverage on major TV networks. 

But the people writing the reams of memos and reports are as online as anyone else, and the cultural warrior mindset that bubbled up principally from Twitter, with roots in much more esoteric subcultural moments like New Atheism and Gamergate, is appearing in UK government policy. Read between the lines and you’ll find traces of the kind of rhetoric usually only found in opinion columns and hyper-partisan publications like Guido Fawkes or Sp!ked in otherwise dry policy documents. But unlike Brendan O’Neill’s latest missive about the Islington chattering classes, these government documents have impacts on people’s lives.

The Department for Education’s document ‘Establishment of a Higher Education Restructuring Regime in Response to COVID-19’ should only be remarkable for the alliteration in its title. For the majority of its fifteen pages, it is quite dull. There is the expected pabulum about preserving the strength of the UK’s world-leading research and protecting the welfare of students, much of it without any concrete policies attached.

It is being issued at a time when there is a clear need for government intervention in higher education: thirteen universities are facing insolvency and the sector is looking at losses between £3 and £19 billion. An estimated £2.8 billion of this will come from decreased international student enrolment. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, these losses can’t be recouped by cost-cutting, and a portion of the half-million people working for UK universities will have to be let go. The thirteen as-yet-unnamed universities who are particularly vulnerable currently educate 5% of all UK students, meaning that 119,000 of the UK’s 2.38 million students will have to find alternative institutions or drop out entirely.

The document begins to lay out a post-Covid future for the higher education sector that is aligned with long-standing, mostly unremarkable conservative beliefs. Institutions must cut down on bureaucracy and government regulations. Administrative activities and staff that ‘don’t add value’ should be cut, but criticism of the pay of vice-chancellors is unwarranted. It notes that ‘not all providers will be prevented from exiting the market’ because government money is a ‘last resort measure,’ and even then any intervention would take the form of a repayable loan, subject to an assessment of a university’s business model. It is not, the document takes great pains to point out, a bailout.

However, scattered throughout are glimpses of the cultural insecurities of the unnamed author or authors. In a paragraph on reducing bureaucracy a single sentence jumps out: ‘the funding of student unions should be proportionate and focussed on serving the needs of the winder student population rather than subsidising niche activism and campaigns.’ What these niches are is never explained, but readers immersed in online culture wars will understand immediately that they are BDS, Black Lives Matter, climate campaigns like Extinction Rebellion, anything left-wing in general.

There are similar dog whistles involving campus free speech in several places. The first mention of the conditions imposed by the Restructuring Regime ends by saying that ‘all universities must, of course, demonstrate their commitment to academic freedom and free speech, as cornerstones of our liberal democracy.’ Again, and as always, what speech is being protected is not elucidated, just as earlier guidance on protecting speech repeatedly stated the value of speech without giving the necessary background on why something that has already been legislated by section 43 of the Education Act of 1986 needs to be revisited. 

Because it doesn’t. But again, if you’ve read the news or, in particular, Twitter over the last five or six years then you know what ‘free speech on college campuses’ means. In the US, we have seen this in practice, where conservative campus groups invite intellectually unserious right-wing figures like Ben Shapiro and Jordan B. Peterson to their campuses and be guaranteed headlines when their student union rejects them.

There is a pipeline on the Right, with no equivalent on the Left, through which ideas – and even stock phrases – can bubble up from the most obscure corners of online discourse and end up in the mainstream. ‘Snowflake’ started to denote a person who was unduly offended (or ‘triggered’) around 2014, when ‘Gamergate’ was emerging as a key cultural battleground for the online right. Through that movement’s adoption by Breitbart, the term is now common in the right-wing press and everyday vernacular. 

In the case of campus freedom of speech, this pipeline appears to have run through late-2010s internet culture into the mainstream press and then into the right-wing thinktank The Policy Exchange, who published a paper late last year containing recommendations that are remarkably similar to the Department for Education’s policies. In ‘Academic freedom in the UK,’ the paper’s authors diagnose a free speech crisis in British universities on the basis that 39% of Leave-supporting students don’t feel comfortable espousing that view in classrooms. Facts, we are told, don’t care about your feelings, and because a minority of a minority feel something to be true does not make it so. 

It’s no more persuasive than the claim that ‘these days you get arrested and thrown in jail if you say you’re English,’ but it’s sufficient for the report’s authors to recommend, among other things, that universities should have ‘Academic Freedom Champions’ similar to the ‘Higher Education Restructuring Regime Boards’ that the Department for Education’s paper recommends. These boards would be empowered to withhold funding from institutions that are not sufficiently protective of freedom of speech, so it would be easy to see how right-wing grifters, abetted by their allies in the press, would find it very easy to force their way onto campuses.

A much larger portion of the document covers the eponymous restructuring of UK universities towards ‘areas of economic and societal importance, such as STEM, nursing and teaching’. Despite the UK having a creative industry worth £111 billion annually, the Right has always identified humanities students as a wasteful folly that produces disloyal layabouts. Fears of a ‘long march through the institutions’ are now couched in authentocrat terms by commenters like John Humphrys, who declares the humanities ‘dead.’

Real salt-of-the-earth types in the newly-blue Red Wall areas are pitted against stock photos of multi-ethnic students with dyed hair laughing in their campus quad because the taxes of apprentice plumbers are paying for three years of WKD and chlamydia. Now that the Conservatives have positioned themselves as the party of the older, whiter voters, and are unwilling to take the kind of action that might reverse decades of deindustrialisation in Red Wall areas, they want symbolic victories against a stereotype of Blue-Haired Woke SJWs to keep this demographic on side.

Again, we see spectres of asinine online controversies turning up in Britain’s governance. ‘STEM vs. Humanities’ was another front in battles surrounding, of all things, videogames, as humanities-versed game critics subjected the themes and stories of games to serious scrutiny and right-wing gamers pushed back by demanding ‘objective games criticism’. This evolved into larger discussions of ‘cultural Marxism’ in academia, an emphasis on ‘facts and logic’ borrowed from the declining New Atheist movement and the development of a conservative approach to humanities that attempted to marry the rigour of STEM to discussions of politics and philosophy. 

Yes, the Right has always been suspicious of the humanities in higher education, but their worry today is not that students will be indoctrinated into Marxism and debauchery (not entirely anyway), but that through ‘postmodernism’ students will become puritanical, censorious, overly-offended crybullies. This framing didn’t emerge from Cold War-era thinktanks but from 4chan and YouTube.

If the Left and Right were on anything like a level playing field with regards to actual power, then conservatives would have every right to be scared of humanities. Teaching somebody to think critically about the world really does expose right-wing ideology as a swirling mass of petty resentments cloaking dull, joyless sadism, and very few people would be entertained or informed by hearing Sargon of Akkad pretend that it’s anything more than that on stage. 

But we live in a world where the Conservative Party has an eighty-seat majority in parliament and a press that is either cheering them on or capitulating to them in the name of maturity and moderation. It is a world in which they still see themselves as victims of censorship rather than the arbiters of what can and can’t be said in sensible political discourse, and now what can and can’t be taught in universities. They will be writing the agenda for a long time to come, and Covid-19 will provide the perfect excuse to bring their pointless, cruel culture war into more aspects of our lives.