University should be a place for intellectual challenge, not virtue signalling Telegraph 16.08.19

The original article is here.

Excitement at the prospect of starting university must be somewhat tempered for those unfortunate enough to have a place at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Plans unveiled this week reveal that burgers will no longer be served in any Goldsmiths’ outlet. The ban on beef is intended to cut carbon emissions and help the institution go green. But the message to those picking up their A level results is clear: forget impressive exam passes, at Goldsmiths we think you are far too stupid to be left to decide for yourself what to have for lunch.

It’s not just Goldsmiths – every university seems to be desperately rushing to brandish its green credentials. Universities across the UK have been divesting in fossil fuels; reinvesting in low carbon technologies; banning straws, carrier bags and disposable cups; turning lights and heating off, and reducing car parking spaces. Each measure is, of course, accompanied by a fanfare of publicity. But each measure also reduces the scope for personal decision making and for staff and students to think through environmental concerns and reach their own conclusions.

The irony of greening the campus is that there’s nothing academics like more than an all-expenses paid invite to an international conference, preferably somewhere hot, sunny and a long way from home. As David Lodge nicely satirised in his campus novels, the skies are full of professors jetting off to far-flung places.

Coming in the other direction are international students with the vast amounts of revenue they generate for UK higher education. In contrast to the emissions released from all this flying, banning burgers or coffee cups will have a negligible impact on the environment. But then, perhaps that’s not actually the point.

Green-washing is just one of a number of ways in which universities now use values for self-promotion. Selling virtue is a key advertising strategy. “Study with us because our morals are superior!” could be higher education’s new slogan. Goldsmiths’ may currently have the lead in green grandstanding, but earlier this year it was Cambridge that out-virtued the rest when it launched an investigation into the university’s historical links to slavery.

It’s good to learn more about the history of an institution. But the chosen focus, the timing of the announcement and the publicity generated suggest this is not a straightforward academic exercise but an attempt at sending a message: Cambridge is not a stuffy institution populated by old white men and books – nothing so old fashioned! – no, it’s now well and truly woke.

I recently saw for myself how this morality advertising works. My son has just finished his A-levels and has spent this year looking at different universities. At one open day we attended the head of the politics department kicked off proceeding with an introductory talk.

This could have been a fantastic opportunity to inspire prospective students with insight into all the interesting issues that are cropping up in politics right now. Instead we sat through an hour long lecture reassuring us that the curriculum had been so thoroughly decolonised there was absolutely no chance any student would ever encounter a  book written by a white male.

This was followed up a few weeks later with a jaunty postcard wishing my son “Good luck in your A levels!”. The picture on the back contained just one word: decolonise. Fortunately, this helped my son conclude quite rapidly that this was not the right university for him.

More importantly, it gets to the heart of what is wrong with all this institutional virtue signalling. It’s not just that it is a trite form of self-promotion; worse, it is fundamentally antithetical to education. University should be a time for students to engage in intellectual challenge and exploration, to confront a whole range of ideas, to argue, debate and ultimately to reach their own conclusions.

When institutions use the lecture theatre, the canteen, or even the entire campus as an opportunity to promote a particular set of values, they rob students of the opportunity to think for themselves. They tell students that the job of working through an issue has been done for them and their role is not to question or criticise but simply to obey.

My hopes for my son are the same, I imagine, as those of many parents who will be reaching for their cheque books in the next few weeks. I want him to go to a university that takes him seriously, teaches him well, introduces him a raft of different ideas – and lets him decide for himself what to have for lunch. He deserves nothing less.

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