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« Silencing dissent | Main | Quote of the day, epic noodle edition »

The decline and fall of the university

'Is it OK to write "kooky", I wonder'.A series of stories in recent days leaves me with the impression that the university system in the Anglosphere countries is on the verge of total collapse.

Take for example the story that students at Brown University are going underground in order to meet and discuss current affairs free of university policies on "safe spaces", which, for the unitiated, are designed to restrict any speech that challenges left-wing memes.

Tales of similar left-wing attacks on free speech at other American univerities are rife as well.

Until recently, I had rather blithely assumed that such foolishness had not yet crossed the Atlantic, but how wrong I was. This video of a debate on gender politics at the University of Bristol is a case in point. The constant hesitation by the panel chairman, as he tries to work out whether what the speakers have said falls foul of the "safe spaces" policy, is something to behold. Is it OK to say "kooky", the panellists wonder at one point.

(If you don't want to watch the full thing, there are highlights here, although you will miss most of the bits I'm talking about. That said, parts of the debate are very funny and I enjoyed seeing the feminist loon being repeatedly skewered).

At universities across the country, speakers have been banned because their views are distasteful to Moslems, to feminists or to socialists.

As Allister Heath says in the Telegraph today, Universities are quickly making themselves irrelevant. The faculty is overwhelmingly socialist and openly hostile to conservatives, they forbid free speech, most of their work is never even read, let alone cited or used, and as readers here know, much of it is written with political ends in mind.

I wonder what will replace them?

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Reader Comments (82)


Note how they've gone straight over the head of the one at whose expense they were given ;-)

Dec 3, 2015 at 2:04 PM | Registered CommenterLaurie Childs

There are far more universities than there once were. This introduces more competition. But is competition good for universities?

Competition leads to commercial pressures that weed out the inefficient and so drive up productivity. That is not good for universities.

Debate is inefficient. Declarations are quicker
Pondering problems and reading and listening is not productive. Quick simple, and uniform answers are far more efficient.

If you don’t publish you perish. That means a constant turnover of staff at universities unless they are more “efficient”. Thus uniformity of bigotry will always drive out the more curious.

It’s just Survival of the Fittest.

How do elite universities maintain their elite status if they aren’t the most efficient in churning out “knowledge”?

Dec 3, 2015 at 2:16 PM | Registered CommenterM Courtney

That Russian was correct.

The presumption that "moral authority" arrived at by repetition of fashionable sociological / cod Marxist dogma trumps observed and reproducible reality - is in large part what is powering the observed dive in standards - coupled to budgetary incontinence overseen by venal and greedy public servants who have been turning our higher education system away from self evident achievement to "rewards all round"

I'm never comfortable referencing the UK's Daily Mail but their recent coverage of academic self aggrandisement and BBC grade rewards for the gong swinging administrative academic nabobs is well worth a read - if only to confirm the extent of the rotten-ness that's eating away at the system.

Dec 3, 2015 at 2:17 PM | Registered Commentertomo

Thank you Andrew for twice dragging this thread back to a topic that's close to my heart. First off, there is a real problem with the concept of a university and what actually passes for it nowadays.

The Weaponisation of pure Research.

I've though about whether that view might just be me getting reactionary in my old farthood but reading my way through dissertations that were awarded firsts, I'm quite simply appalled. One or two honourable mentions, but the rest was mediocre dross with lots of sparkly tinsel references to hide it. It was as if the student was cosying up to the approved bully of the field to avoid getting thumped.

The subversion of a relatively new peer review process is strangling innovative thought not only in science, but even before that at a tertiary level - don't submit an off the reservation dissertation or you'll be lucky to be awarded a third.

The arteries of original thought are being hardened in kids barely twenty, and like all kids, they'll mostly do what's necessary to finish up with some piece of paper, which most potential employers ignore nowadays. Having taught a graduate how to work out a percentage, they're understandably jaundiced about the products of tertiary level education.

I think the way forward is new media, because there's no other avenue for original thought to find expression. The exact mechanism or process is unclear to me but if there's one thing I know about new ideas is that they'll always escape out of the bag no matter how hard the current establishment in whatever form try to suppress them.


Dec 3, 2015 at 2:18 PM | Unregistered CommenterPointman


A University principal racked up nearly £15,000 in accommodation costs in the United States to help work on a New York campus that has no degree students.

Glasgow Caledonian’s Pamela Gillies stayed in luxury hotels in New York six times in one year, including an eight-day stretch, and even had her mini-bar bills paid for her. In October, it was revealed that Glasgow Caley had spent around £5.6m developing an offshoot campus in Manhattan. However, it was reported that the New York authorities had yet to approve the University with a license to teach. The project, launched in September 2013....

Dec 3, 2015 at 2:30 PM | Unregistered Commenteresmiff

This is even worse. Anyone who values free speech in UK Universities watch this and weep

Dec 3, 2015 at 2:44 PM | Unregistered CommenterCEEBE

Secondary thought inspired by all the right-wingers saying "It's all the left-wingers fault".
That isn't my experience but I've not been in University for almost 20years.

Yet, in my day, the Left encouraged all sorts of debate about ideas and ideologies. Indeed, the problem was that the debates led to ever finer distinctions until the People's Front of Judaea split.
The Left was known for doing ideas rather than practical actions.
Lots of ideas. Lots of debates. Very few practical policies.

So the secondary thought is this:
To prevent splitting and thus becoming a House Divided against Itself Academia has declared debate over.
Academia knows it's not valued. And so it's circling the wagons

Dec 3, 2015 at 2:55 PM | Registered CommenterM Courtney

MC, I think politics is the problem. The Telegraph says that "In political science, history and sociology, the authors find that there are around 19 Democratic academics for every Republican."
This is the problem that Haidt, Duarte et al are going on about at Heterodox Academy.

Because of the imbalance, activist lefty drivel from university academics like Aaron McCright, Adam Corner, Stephan Lewandowsky, Naomi Oreskes etc etc gets published and promoted without question.

As you say, in the 'good old days', the left used to encourage debate. But the modern authoritarian middle-class Guardian left is completely different, and tries to suppress any debate. (As stated in Bish's post). If there was either a better balance, or a genuine debate, these people and their bogus arguments would be torn to pieces.

Dec 3, 2015 at 3:13 PM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

First the quote -

"Whereas we all too readily ape America in cultural matters there is one difference between our two countries that cannot be emphasised enough: their blacks were dragged there in chains, ours came of their own free will: America does indeed owe a duty to the descendants of those it enslaved and (by extension) other non-whites, so, up to a point, it has to accommodate this kind of rubbish."

I would suspect most of those blacks "dragged to America in chains" came on British ships, so get off your high horse. Second, Current generations do not owe anything to anyone since there is not a "slave" left alive, accept those who are slaves to the "corporations and banks" that have done their best to destroy freedom.

It doesn't matter what side of the pond you are on, you are going to suffer from the same problem because, as Thomas Jefferson pointed out so many years ago, a "republic" and to as an extent, a "democracy" requires an educated and engaged citizenry. What a "dictatorship" or a country run by its elite require, however, is exactly the opposite - a "dumbed down and disengaged citizenry." You get that through education controlled by the central government and introduce such inane things as television, video games, smart phones, and reoriented sexual drive.

Britain is no better at having protected its freedom and children's future than has the US been and, in fact, in some ways appear to try to be the leaders in the race to 3rd world stature - after all we at least still have the assets to play the game. I am not proud of where my country and its pathetic leadership has taken us, but you have no right to look down your nose since you are right there with us. Ah, the things we try to do to pretend we are an empire, and the same applies to you.

Dec 3, 2015 at 3:40 PM | Unregistered CommenterTom O

Paul Matthews

The modern Guardian 'left' has been infused with arrogant, hate filled, contemptuous, American political correctness. That is a personal issue for me b/c I am now alienated from my own (traditional) constituency / social scene.

Dec 3, 2015 at 3:41 PM | Unregistered Commenteresmiff

M Courtney on Dec 3, 2015 at 2:16 PM
"How do elite universities maintain their elite status if they aren’t the most efficient in churning out “knowledge”?"

Elite institutions go for quality, not quantity or cheapness. That is what defines them. :) They then attract the elite school leavers and can charge higher fees. Elite staff are attracted because they like to tutor challenging (but civil) students. Well, that was the theory!

With the State and its supporting QUANGOs (including the BBC) influencing the criteria for selecting the student intake and the acceptableness of the output, from the students' skin colour, gender and total numbers involved, and their parents' earning power and marital status to the adherence to the political dogmas of the time, from teaching 'sight words', feminism (only girls can play with lego in nursery), planned economies, global warming threats to the World and EU propaganda, they have very little of their traditional judgement left to make a difference. Note academic excellence wasn't mentioned, nor seeking the truth:
Dr. Everett Piper on How to Take Back the High Road of Education

If you remember, 'It's the fish that John West reject that makes John West the best' but when there are so few 'good fish' leaving school and the processing plant on campus is gearing up for larger volumes, the quality decreases.

I have read that, in effect, nearly all secondary schools, for all intents and purposes, have become grammar schools, so how do non-academic children feel, always being out of the limelight? Excellence becomes an embarrassment. If non-academic children could specialise earlier, not only would they do well, and be proud of it, with their education being tailored to their abilities, it would also mean the academic child would need to choose a path and excel at it in order to have something to be proud off as well when they left education and not just being naturally better at a subject, with little effort and no direction until they have graduated, and then it is too late.

But the problem goes beyond school and university life:
Spoiled, immature, out-of-control – and that’s just the parents

Dec 3, 2015 at 3:45 PM | Registered CommenterRobert Christopher

Academe needs to be Thatchered. As was the miners union.

Dec 3, 2015 at 3:51 PM | Unregistered CommenterH2O: the miracle molecule

Paul Matthews, the fact that the Left so dominates Universities now is a result of the defensiveness of Universities not the cause.

If I am right then any slight imbalance will be magnified as the minority is squeezed out.

It is not a political issue - if the right had had the slight advantage when the debate was stifled then the Left would have been kicked out.

esmiff makes a good point about US influence but I think that the US is just more advanced in this process.

In the UK the clever people are stolen from academia by the City.
In the US the clever people are stolen by the Banks and the Start-up Tech companies.
On neither side of the pond does academia compete with those options.

The pay is worse. Universities can't provide the same resources. Blue sky thinking also provides intellectual freedom everywhere so what's special about Academia?

It's in decline and they know it.

Dec 3, 2015 at 3:56 PM | Registered CommenterM Courtney

Robert Christopher, there are too many people at University.
That does mean the standard is diluted.

But it also means that papers can only compete for attention by celebrity or by numbers (10 bad papers are worth one good paper or a thousand brilliant, unread papers).

And it leads to non-knowledge being discovered and validated.
Consider the fact that p-values were set when there were far fewer researchers,. Back then if you got a 1 in 20 result by fluke and got published it would soon fade away as no-one would replicate it.
But with every town in the west and many elsewhere having Universities there are always others who will get a similar spurious result. Or near enough.

They can publish also (as it's new and marvellous). They can talk to each other - have a symposium - maybe from that found a journal... and their Universities have the world leaders in this new field!

The Universities will strongly defend this new field from the nay-sayers who point out that 95% of the time it just doesn't happen.

With so much research the system is self-perpetuating without any knowledge being generated.
And so knowledge itself becomes de-valued. Stick with "facts".

Dec 3, 2015 at 4:06 PM | Registered CommenterM Courtney

It's not been mentioned directly here but the industry of contriving evidence is something academic acquaintances of mine (grumpy oldies!) pounce on when I raise the topic. There are of course funding concerns all over the place but the willingness of many to lend institutional authority for a few pieces of silver is not new - it's gotten out of control though..... and with professional bodies like The Royal Society providing examples for others to follow - recovery is going to be quite a climb.

Dec 3, 2015 at 4:09 PM | Registered Commentertomo

The African genocide was mainly carried out by British and Portuguese,

Dec 3, 2015 at 10:12 AM | Aila

I thikn you forgot about Belgium. The horror, the horror...

Dec 3, 2015 at 4:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterJeremy Poynton


Yes, I agree about new media. The problem is that scientist in the academy feel they ignore anything published in new media.

Dec 3, 2015 at 4:19 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

M Courtney on Dec 3, 2015 at 4:06 PM

Yes, universities should have stayed in the academic market place, but external pressures and the attraction of comfort zones have distracted our guardians of academia from the goals to which universities need to aspire.

I put this in Unthreaded, but the text below the diagram is applicable here. I am not defending the whole Bible here, only pointing out the fact that the OT was about a few tribes with a culture that survived and was passed on to Christians, and they have survived, until recently, anyway:
It explains at lot
The Global Warming Panic Centre found :)

"They have injected into the American mindset the concepts of communism so thoroughly, some of it sounds American, because it incorporates Christian values of charity. The weakness in America is largely due to its Christian ethos, where all baser instincts towards dealing with the dismantling of a once great culture are smothered by decency. So, we stand by, watching the life-blood of our nation spill out over the continent, while we comport to the values of the Bible."

It is similar to Mike Haseler's post (from way back) in that valid civil behaviours are mixed into a lethal concoction:
"Social science has only two problems: it isn't science and it isn't social.
Indeed it combines the worst aspects of both areas. It takes as a dogma the dispassionate "uncaring" attitude that science needs to be impartial, and throws away the impartial bit and replaces it with a sloppy agenda driven attitude toward data and methodology which is common in society.

Dec 3, 2015 at 4:46 PM | Registered CommenterRobert Christopher

the difference between Thatchers mines and the universities is that universities being one year out of services will have ABSOLUTELY NO IMPACT whatsoever.

Big saving, less traffic jams, less noise, less pollution.

Take up a few MOOC courses you'll be cleverer and better prepared.

Dec 3, 2015 at 4:48 PM | Unregistered CommenterVenusCold

If you think it's American universities that are the problem you should take a look at the Tim Hunt fiasco - with UCL's behaviour as the example. Or, Philip Moriarty of Nottingham Uni, who is an active blogger.

Dec 3, 2015 at 5:49 PM | Registered Commentershub


From Chamber's link :
"You really shouldn’t try this on. I’ve got a maths O-level you know."

Mike Hansen In reply to Geoff Chambers

I do not think O-level maths helps when you are obsessed by climate science denial.

For other readers this document gives some background to the cumulative emissions chart,

Mike Swinbourne
logged in via Facebook
In reply to Geoff Chambers
“…..I rest my case…..”

Is that a promise Geoff, or are you going to keep posting the same discredited garbage time and time again?

Mike Hansen
In reply to Geoff Chambers

Did you notice that Nic Lewis via Judith Curry have produced their own version of that cumulative emissions chart but naturally given their ideology with lower sensitivity.

Apparently Nic Lewis did not think the chart irrelevant. :-)

Lets face it Geoff - you are scientifically illiterate denier troll whose stock in trade is conspiracy theories. You should stick with the tin foil hat and avoid the science.

Geoff Chambers
In reply to Mike Hansen

How can what Nic Lewis via Judith Curry did with a graph possibly be relevant to my criticisms? Time and again I’ve been accused on these threads of being in contradiction with Tol/Lewis/Curry/Monckton, as if I were guilty of some kind of Deviationism from an official Denialist programme. What kind of logical universe do you inhabit? This thread is about Maslin and Maslin only. I can’t even remember what we were talking about. Did I say something wrong? If so, what was it?

And Then There's Physics
logged in via TwitterIn reply to Geoff Chambers

The amount of warming due to the additional GHG in the atmosphere cannot possibly depend almost linearly on cumulative emissions since the tiny number of gigatons 1850-1950 “caused” roughly the same temperature rise as the far bigger number 1950-2000.

Geoff you should read this paper. In particular look at Figure 4. It is an observationally based estimate of the TCRE for each decade from about 1910 till 1990-1999. It’s largely consistent with the standard IPCC numbers that the TCRE is between about 1 and 2.5C per 1000GtC.

Dec 3, 2015 at 5:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterRussell

Talk about a determined effort to drag the topic off a discussion about the decline in universities. It's almost as if the culprits are sinecured in them.


Dec 3, 2015 at 6:01 PM | Unregistered CommenterPointman

A bishopric is the finest kind of sinecure

Dec 3, 2015 at 7:09 PM | Unregistered CommenterRussell

Mark Maslin, the UCL Professor of Climate Science who was prepared to discuss historical temperatures with little old O-level me until suddenly he wasn't (it wasn't as if I was going on and on, I'd only corrected one of his errors) is also director of a commercial company called Rezatec, set up by UCL, which produces earth imaging software. (Strangely, Jaqueline McGlade ex European Environment Agency, now UNEP, is in the same line of business).

Once you encourage universities to go into business, they're going to go into the kind of business that requires their expertise, and then set up the kind of academic departments that produces the kind of expertise that will enable them to set up the kind of business that requires it. Obviously, the sicker the planet, the more it needs earth imaging software, and the more money Professor Maslin stands to make.

No wonder my granddaughter, who did geography at UCL, hardly ever saw her professors.

Dec 3, 2015 at 8:24 PM | Registered Commentergeoffchambers

Funny in the 70's students were anti-establishment, now they are for the establishment. Difference is the ideas like Global Warming' "hope" and "change" ideas that people can feel they are part of the solution. Also older people dont like change so it must be good, unfortunately no one taught the students that change is not necessarily better or even good.

They have grown up in an age of endless change, and most changes....CD,DVD,Smartphones, Flatscreens have gotten cheaper and better, change, whats not to like??

Dec 3, 2015 at 9:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterScott

huh... ?

I get a name check? and a score ... in a game I'm not familiar with. - seems unlikely - you're not that Russell are you?

Dec 3, 2015 at 10:08 PM | Registered Commentertomo

"I don't understand why a supposedly Conservative Government hasn't done something about the lamentable state of education." --Phillip Bratby

It's busy "turning the other cheek."

"This horror is caused by the wholesale Americanisation of our culture, lead by the Guardian, who at one point had twice as many American online visitors than British (now 27-20)." --esmiff

If your culture is to be rated by Guardianista figures of any sort, perhaps it's already beyond hope. I have known but one US resident who subscribed to the Guardian. He also owned an ancient XK-120. One weekend, he replaced the tachometer cable and was pleased to see the once-dead needle jump about when he started the engine. The next weekend, he replaced the speedometer cable. Alas, when he started the engine, the mph gauge stayed at zero. He had already told me on a Monday of this lamentable failure when his eyes opened wide, realizing that he'd have had to put the car in gear and driven to show a speed. I'll say no more.

Dec 4, 2015 at 1:23 AM | Unregistered Commenterjorgekafkazar

So far underground that it is housed in a private Facebook page. And here Eli thought that they had breached one of the slave jails under John Brown's house to meet.

Dec 4, 2015 at 4:07 AM | Unregistered CommenterEli Rabett

The Yale Problem Begins in High School.

Dec 4, 2015 at 8:35 AM | Unregistered Commenterhusq


There is a Guardian demographics page here.

It confirms what you thought. Very few Guardian readers appear to be American car mechanics suffering from a degenerative brain disorder. Well spotted.

Dec 4, 2015 at 10:06 AM | Unregistered Commenteresmiff

Not sure about this....

Dec 4, 2015 at 11:21 PM | Registered Commentertomo

Just in case people think that slavery is a thing of the past, one should note the following.
The Global Slavery Index 2013 states that 10 nations account for 76 percent of the world's enslaved. India has the most slaves of any country, at 14 million (over 1% of the population). China has the second-largest number with 2.9 million slaves, followed by Pakistan with 2.1 million, Nigeria with 701,000, Ethiopia with 651,000, Russia with 516,000, Thailand with 473,000, Congo with 462,000, Myanmar with 384,000, and Bangladesh with 343,000. Mauritania was the last nation to officially abolish slavery, doing so in 2007; yet 4.3% of the population still remains enslaved.
There is still a lot to be done to eliminate all slavery in the World.

Dec 5, 2015 at 3:32 AM | Unregistered Commenternicholas tesdorf

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