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UCAS Applications: Which Universities Care About Free Speech?

Updated: Aug 22

Six months ago, I witnessed a very interesting talk by an English Literature lecturer from Buckingham University. She was describing undergraduate English Literature at her university to sixth form students. If you have anything to do with UCAS applications at your school you will know the extent to which universities are increasingly like clothing brands. We could easily name the ‘Nike’ institutions and the ‘Gola’ ones. To some extent who can blame students from wanting to ‘purchase’ their degree from the so-called Russell Group universities? It makes sense that Buckingham might not be top of a student’s list of desirable institutions. Still, having listened to this one lecturer it made me want to go there.

One of the top universities in the free speech rankings is Buckingham University and so when their representative (having delivered a very entertaining speech) failed to mention this, I pointed it out in front of the sixth form students. According to Spiked Online’s traffic light system, only a handful of universities score green when it comes to free speech and Buckingham is one. http://ee.spiked-online.com/free-speech-university-rankings/results#.W7YidmyovRc In identifying the most censorious enemies to free speech, Spiked uses measures like no-platformed speakers, the presence of trigger warnings and the banning of publications: these universities are highlighted in red. Several of the Russell Group universities do not emerge with much credit from Spiked’s survey, although it is also fair to say that Spiked are probably measuring the attitude of student unions as much as the wider university.

Pointing out that less fashionable institutions are pro-free speech and, by implication, pro-enlightenment values is sadly unlikely to make a difference. As things stand, university status probably trumps principles and so the Russell Groups (conspicuous for being conspicuous in the free speech rankings) can demand high grades from the top students, despite not ensuring that their student unions deliver the basics of enlightenment principles. I don’t expect sixth formers to wholly ignore the status of the universities (I wouldn’t), but it is worth them knowing that for the money they are paying, not all of these ‘top’ universities can guarantee commitment to core Western values, like freedom of thought and expression.

Many university students justify no-platforming and censorship in terms of their position as customers. We pay a lot for the degree; we’ll decide who enters our intellectual space. The obvious problem here is that when you are a customer in any other marketplace and decide, for instance, that Harry Potter novels are beneath your realm, you can opt not to buy them. I am not aware of anyone who has removed the adolescent wizard from the book shelves of Waterstone’s on behalf of others: as soon as this does become possible, it will be me doing it. If Nigel Farage is coming to your institution to speak you don’t have to go: just don’t stop other punters from attending.

The ‘consumer is always right’ approach to university is a side effect of tuition fees that needs more thought. In my opinion, what doesn’t make sense is the strange tuition fee system now in place, where the cost of a degree barely alters, regardless (largely) of which course or institution a student applies for. When Mahatma Ghandi was asked, ‘What do you think of Western civilisation?’ he reportedly replied, ‘That sounds like a good idea!’. You could answer something similar if asked, ‘what do you think of a marketised university system?’ The university system is not a market place.

Ever been in a car showroom and discovered that the brand-new Porsche costs the same as a ten year old Peugeot with two previous owners? No? That’s because it doesn’t happen. In a real market place, a financial investment is subject to supply and demand: Porsches are in demand because fewer are made and they are harder to acquire. Owning a Porsche is highly desirable: its price fluctuates according to competition. University courses have different values too: engineering courses will typically lead to a higher income than an arts degree; still, at the moment they generally cost the same. My point is, we don’t have a market place for university degrees. There is surely a price, but the price is not determined like a market place.

Instead, the university system resembles little more than a legalised cartel, where each university has fixed the cost of all degrees at the same price. I’ll have an engineering degree from a Russell Group university, please. That’s nine grand. How about the arts degree from a less fashionable university? Let me just check: that’s nine grand! If you think that ‘cartel’ is too strong a word, consider what would happen if private schools were caught fee fixing: cartel is exactly the word that would be used. I don’t understand how the universities get away with it, other than successive governments have legitimised it.

I’m not suggesting, by the way, that engineering degrees (which are more lucrative) should cost much more than arts degrees; I am simply saying that if they did it would at least look a little more like a market place. How universities have been allowed to fix prices like this is astonishing. Forget partisan politics: Blair, Brown, Cameron and May are all culpable. Jeremy Corbyn meanwhile wishes to abolish tuition fees entirely. Yet Tony Blair did not introduce fees ideologically, but pragmatically. Universities needed the money and it had to come from somewhere.

It is perhaps hardly surprising that having organised a non competitive, fixed price system, certain principles (that should be second nature to a university) go out of the window. Free speech, for example, was once a foundational principle for society, never mind university. It is hard to run a university without it, I would have thought, but many of them seem to be managing just fine.

Still, what is a university for? What is a degree for? I seldom hear that being discussed. A university, to an extent, is like Facebook on a campus. It is no accident that the internet’s greatest narcissism platform originated on a university campus. According to The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg’s site is only ready when he hits upon the latent motivator of campus life: to find out who is dating who. If you sleep with the right people, befriend the right people and manage your contacts you don’t actually need to read anything. Take a look for yourself at the free speech rankings on Spiked: note the big names representing the red light areas of British education and make sure that you point it out to sixth form applicants. Then it is up to them.

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