The is the first instalment of Universities Challenged – a column about the world of academia.
RIP Sam Gyimah. On the 30th of November, the MP for East Surrey announced he would be resigning his position as Universities Minister. Like seemingly every other Mike Truk and Bobson Dugnut in the cabinet, he was unable to support Theresa May's Brexit deal. Gyimah had only been in post since January of this year – but it feels like a lot longer than that. When he succeeded Jo Johnson, I had no idea who he was. But in just 11 short months, Gyimah more than made his mark.
Anyone who works in or adjacent to academia in this country will know that there are at least two Big Truths about British universities. The first is that the biggest threat they currently face is from the government: especially since the big tuition fees hike was passed in 2010, the people in charge of this country have been pursuing an aggressive programme of "marketisation" – ostensibly as a way to make all of us lazy academics more efficient, but really just as a way of doing what free market reforms have always aimed at: concentrating wealth and resources in the hands of those who already have them.
Mechanisms like the Teaching Excellence Framework – still yet to be fully implemented – and the removal of the cap on student numbers mean that "top" (i.e. Russell Group) institutions are able to recruit more students, and will soon be able to charge more money for their courses. Meanwhile, lowlier, typically newer universities are witnessing threats of departmental closure and even bankruptcy. Brexit – which will impact on student numbers, as well as the availability of research money – will almost certainly make things even worse. As often is the case with these things, it's hard to know where the thuggery ends and the incompetence begins.
The second Big Truth is that almost everything written about universities in newspapers is overhyped. The stories about universities that get the most traction in the press are almost always about how lefty academics are shutting down freedom of speech, how all those pesky snowflakes they teach are trying to do things like remove white men from the curriculum or stop people from clapping at events because it's not PC enough.
Typically, these stories take some basically true fact, distort it out of all proportion, then act as if this distortion illustrates a broad trend. For instance: a couple of months ago, the University of Manchester's student union really did vote to encourage the use of the "jazz hands" gesture instead of clapping, in a bid to improve accessibility for people with sensory processing disorders at events. This was then reported as a "ban on clapping", and ended up with Jeremy Vine tweeting a link to a news story about the "clapping ban" alongside an image of some soldiers in the trenches during World War I. Safe to say: no, our students are not – in general – weird and censorious and entitled. That would be the people having a dig at those trying to be considerate by evoking those who died in a pointless war.
In recent years, University Ministers have tended to be culpable for the first Big Truth, but they've usually had a bit too much dignity to get themselves directly involved in perpetuating the second. Gyimah's great innovation was to go along with basically everything the newspapers said was true, fanning the flames of nonsense as he went. In this, he became our first true Culture Warrior Universities Minister.
Gyimah proved himself willing to invoke the most flagrant bullshit in order to smear what was supposed to be "his" sector. Major speeches saw him declaring the need to resist a "monoculture" on campus, using the law to stop students from protesting "unfashionable or unpopular" views. He announced a "free speech pledge" and told vice chancellors they needed to stop letting "identity politics" shape debate.
This rhetoric was peppered with stories like: "At one institution, when I turned up to speak to students they read the safe-space policy and it took 20 minutes," and "a lecturer at King's College London was investigated for hate speech after taking the side of the British over the Soviets in a class about the Berlin blockade". Compelling evidence of the sorry state our universities are in, perhaps – the only problem is that they turned out to be completely made-up.
In a way, I'm surprised there weren't more calls for Gyimah's resignation after he was caught in a lie. But I suppose when it comes to administering our universities, the truth doesn't count for much anymore. Eventually, Gyimah got to resign on his own terms over an unrelated issue.
So what's next for Britain's universities? On paper, Gyimah's successor, Chris Skidmore, seems less likely to pursue Culture War-related goals. If nothing else, Skidmore seems to fancy himself as a historian – he almost stayed on at Oxford for a PhD, and writes biographies of Tudor royals in his spare time. This suggests that he might even have real sympathy for academia – something that Gyimah always seemed to lack.
But if we might see less nonsense, I wouldn't expect any improvement. Skidmore might be more bookish than his predecessor, but he's also very much a free market dogmatist – in 2012, he was one of the authors of Britannia Unchained, a neo-Thatcherite tract which argued, among other things, that the laziness of British workers was holding back the country as a whole. "The British are among the worst idlers in the world," the text argued.
So what does this mean for Britain's academics? A short but polite conversation about the relative merits and demerits of Elizabeth I's foreign policy, perhaps, followed by everyone having a device installed at their desks that administers an electric shock every time their heartbeat approaches a resting pace. I can't wait!