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Difficult Questions For Universities

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Recently I attended a lecture that straw manned the arguments against University education. The talk was interesting, but I don’t believe it adequately addressed some of the points being made by its critics. I believe that in order to make these institutions stronger, they must first accurately and fairly address the points made by their opponents.

At the start of the talk, the speaker asked whether the people in the room believe in the value of University education. Everybody raised their hands in agreement, so it was an easy crowd to win over. I believe that only University staff and those affiliated with the University were invited, so this was always going to be an easy win.

Despite this, I was left unconvinced of the arguments being made. Don’t get me wrong, I am educated at a University and believe in the value of a University education. Still, I do not believe it to be useful to incorrectly represent the other side of the argument. There are some difficult questions that need to be answered.

I would have loved to have addressed these points at the time, and I made some notes as the talk was ongoing. Unfortunately this talk was quite late, I was quite tired after a full working day and the time allocated to questions was quite limited. I’ve instead decided to address these points here.

For obvious reasons, I leave this feedback rather vague, as my intention here is not to cause a backlash of some sort for the University. In fact, I am quite pleased that these topics could even be discussed at all. There is hope as long as this remains the case.

The Opponents

One thing not addressed in the talk was who ‘they’, or the opponents to higher education actually are. I believe these people typically fall in the following categories (from my experience):

The point I make here is that we should not look down on these people. In the talk as these points against higher education were being ‘refuted’, there was an amusement in the room that made me feel uncomfortable.

I think that when arguing with people, even their straw man, we should assume they hold their values in good faith. Whether they be misinformed or carry some emotional barrier that blocks their critical thinking, we should hold them with respect, and hope they repay us with this kindness when we fall short of the truth.

Tired of Experts

One of the points raised in the talk was that ‘people’ are ‘tired of experts’. I think this is a somewhat emotional response to points that are much harder to reason out. There is this feeling that the value of experts are overrated, but it is hard to nail down.

The speaker at the talk attempted to rebuke these points by suggesting the benefits that Science has had for these people that are said to be tired of it. Science is just one part of a University, and I suspect the speaker would have a harder time arguing the benefits of the arts to the straw man opponent.

After this, the point of vaccines was raised, and specifically COVID-19. The point was raised that it took some 4 years previously to vaccinate for the measles, and this was reduced to a record low of just 1 year, with the help of great new Science such as the MRNA vaccine.

I really believe this review of Scientific benefits (which is again just one part of the University) does not address the fatigue of experts.

To be clear, what I believe the straw man opponent is tired of is people claiming to be experts and holding contrary opinions. Pick chocolate or coffee for example, I could find you well supported studies showing that each has benefits, both claiming to be the truth.

And look at COVID-19 for example, where government policy was driven by the “experts”, which meant conflicting and inconsistent advice almost daily. Numbers were regularly pulled out of thin air and sacrifices made to “reduce the spread”, that later was revoked or changed in such a way that it negated the original position, meaning it was for nothing.

For a specific example, Dr Anthony Fauci in the US claimed there was no need for masks, and then later revoked this statement, claiming he lied on purpose to reduce demand on masks. There is not just inconsistent advice from multiple experts, but sometimes the same expert can offer differing ‘factual’ advice.

COVID-19 was the time when Scientists became politicians, and politicians became Scientists. One can very much see why people would be tired of experts.

I think the problem with the word ‘expert’ is that it makes a person almost unquestionable, whereas good Science requires that everything is questioned, such that we should find the truth. The word ‘expert’ should mean ‘knowledgeable’, and should not be conflated with the word ‘truth’.

Immigration Is Good

Another point raised is that immigration is of net benefit. The points made were based on financial gain, cultural exchange and some others (I forget).

The point regarding cultural exchange suggested that it is good that we apply our British values unto foreign students. But this is two-way, and in all honesty there are some foreign values I most definitely do not want to see impressed in British society, that would work against British values.

Some of the British values we hold for example are democracy, freedom of speech and acceptance. I dare you to see what an Islamic student thinks about your crude drawing of Mohammed. I dare you to question Chinese students on the ethics of the CCP government. I generally dare you to challenge any of their non-British ideological values, and see where you get.

I think the argument of cultural exchange should not only be considered in a positive light, but also a negative light.

A question directly raised to me (elsewhere) was by a Nigerian student, asking why there are not more British people is his classes. “Good question” I responded at the time. I’m not sure I have a positive response to this.

Another point raised in the talk is that foreign students are not replacing British students by taking their places. This was absolutely categorically ruled out. Yet, as this Nigerian fellow pointed out, there are less and less British people in the classrooms. It’s not that there are the same number of British students but more foreign students, it’s that they are indirectly being replaced.

Perhaps British students see less value in higher education, as the straw man opponent suggests. I suspect this would be an oversimplification.

It was also said that the growth of Pakistan would supply future business for Universities, and that this would require the University to grow further. The speaker made no hint at encouraging more British students to attend University. After all, if we are making the case that Universities are of net benefit, and our University degrees are valuable, surely we would want to boost the number of local British students making use of this opportunity?

I struggle to believe that this addresses the future funding issues also raised, as this is unlikely to be sustainable growth.

Future Funding

The point was raised that future funding will be a concern, and will likely see Universities have to change their models. This will likely see some Universities collapse that are either unable to adapt or are not setup to do so.

As I mentioned previously, this would likely also come at a time with less immigration for higher education studies. I would suggest that the University should not rely on this income, and instead think of it as temporary. In this case, the University itself could be one of those to go through very tough times.

Generally, all systems that rely on constant growth are almost doomed for failure. This is why global economies will always have recessions and why all economic markets will always retract. Growth is not sustainable, and the fact that the University relies on this and is not robust against it is highly concerning.

In the hunt for future funding, Universities may once again look towards the government (i.e. taxpayer) assistance. Whilst this is a good source of funding, I believe several key questions should be asked:

  1. Why should those not directly benefiting from higher education help fund it?
  2. If Universities become dependant on government, like the BBC, will they be subject to the politics of the day?

The other option is to saddle students with higher and higher amounts of debt. I don’t believe this model is sustainable either, and may just lead to young people signing up to un-repayable amounts of debt.

Demand For Degrees

The argument was raised that demand for degrees is increasing, and this in turn means that Universities are both justified and doing a great job. Interestingly, the point was also made that there is now more demand for Masters degrees too.

Demand could be higher because more students are confident they can get one, because they have become easier to pass. From my experience, more students now have an expectation that they will pass if they complain enough. The analogy I heard years ago is that it is supposed to be more like a gym membership, where you gain as much as the effort you put in.

If the quality of a degree (and possibly even the A-level too) has decreased by enough, then employers wanting to maintain a certain level of academic standard would need to raise their requirements in return. This could in theory be why there is now a greater demand for Masters degrees too.

A worrying trend I’ve observed is that students appear to be want to be spoon fed instructions, with them applying little to no critical thinking or self-learning. The speaker correctly pointed out that the University is supposed to teach students how to think, rather than how to pass exams, but this doesn’t appear to map to reality.

I will apply a caveat here though that although the students expect to be told how to pass, many academics I have encountered have correctly stood their ground and demanded that students meet the expected standards, rather than them being lowered. Still, somewhere in the University is a box-checker, and if an Excel formula tells them that more students are failing this time period, this is seen as a negative towards the academic(s) responsible.

Again, with the demand for continued funding growth, we may see standards lowered to get more students into higher education, with the burden being increasingly pushed onto the teaching staff to raise them to the expected level. Something must give.

Snowflakes on Campus

Firstly, the term ‘snowflakes’ was the term used in the talk. More accurately, we are talking about students who believe their ideology is above any kind of criticism, and are unable to handle opposing expressions towards their ideology.

It was raised that there were some small number of students studying what could be considered as far-left ideological subjects. This is too many. Universities should not be creating students with a heavy ideological bent. The idea is to teach students to be open-minded, and to generally encourage the marketplace of ideas.

The claim was made that the University supports freedom of speech and good debate. Some examples of this were given in the past, but these were narrowly avoided. But apparently the speaker’s position on this neutrality remains - and I must give the speaker the benefit of the doubt.

One concern for me is that the University directly reports ‘extreme’ students to Prevent, an organisation that I believe is funded by the taxpayer and is supposed to help prevent extremism. I believe they have in the past incorrectly sent people there who simply are right-wing and edgy, and have only served to radicalise some groups of extremists by concentrating them together. I am yet to be convinced of Prevent’s merits.

On a side note: If foreign students need to be referred to Prevent, and are found to hold extremist values, they should likely be deported. We have enough home-grown extremism and do not need to import it too.

Another concern is that there are very large displays of open support for LGBT (the acronym grows a letter each day, so the shortening includes the forever increasing letters). Firstly, I think you’ll find that your large import of foreign students do not align to these beliefs. Secondly, the University is clearly backing one horse over another.

On top of this the University also have BAME (Black, Asian, Ethnic, and Minorities - which interestingly includes everybody except white British males), where there are various quotas and additional help provided to these people, which also shows an element of additional bias.

All this is to say that the University becomes an increasingly left-leaning organisation. The point was even raised in the talk, where students are overwhelmingly left-wing, seemingly mostly due to their age. Left-wing students would probably encourage left-wing staff, and before you know it, you have diversity in everything but thought.


I must state once more, I am not against the fundamental idea of a University, and I’m quite invested in its prosperous future. But I do believe there is some genuine criticism out there that cannot be brushed off so easily. These questions do have teeth, and answering them will not be easily done.

I believe one of the most valuable attributes to a University (ironically) is actually Conservatism (read: not right-wing), the idea being that you have this large, slow-changing organisation that is not reactionary. The problem with becoming reactionary is that you risk accidentally being on the wrong side, and this can happen in a blink.

I believe almost every University in the UK may have some negative consequence from embracing left-leaning reactionary ideals, and I really hope they survive it.

In the next few years, I would like to see the following:

  1. Sustainable financial model that doesn’t rely on growth or foreign students. That’s not to say Universities cannot grow or have foreign students, but they should be stable without them.
  2. Standards should be increased to maintain the quality of higher education. It should be exclusive, if everybody has a degree then the value of a degree is meaningless.
  3. Stop applying the politics of the day. In Universities we should be judging people by their minds, not their race, skin, religion, sex or sexuality. We should not be biased for or against any group of people, it is simply not the role of a University.