by Lewis Martin
In the midst of right-wing confusion about Jeremy Corbyn’s continuing support amongst the young, following a supposed u-turn on his flagship policy to scrap student debt, Tom Welsh of the Telegraph has unveiled a new thesis: the left will continue its resurgence so long as too many go to university*. His argument is as ridiculous as the title makes it sound, and his article is full of claims that are absurd, patronising and completely unsupported.
Apparently UK universities have “succumbed to a kind of intellectual Stalinism” which, Welsh implies, has had a destabilising effect on the way that academics and students vote. According to him 80% of academics vote for “left wing parties”. He deplores the culture of safe spaces and no platforming, hilariously whinging that “even free market capitalists aren’t safe”. I don’t know what he thought ‘left wing’ meant before now, but it sounds like he’s been learning some painful lessons lately. The solution he offers at the end of this hysterical passage is that we must encourage the creation of fully privatised universities to rival the “factories for Corbynites”.
Looking at Welsh’s background, it becomes extremely clear where these views come from. Educated at Oxford and later Kings College London, Welsh worked for the Taxpayers Alliance, the right wing libertarian pressure group that gets rolled out whenever the Institute of Economic Affairs isn’t available, before becoming an editor at City AM and now a deputy editor at the Telegraph. The irony here is obvious – his is the kind of career that could only follow a university education, and as a young, right wing, recent graduate he stands as a counterexample to his own argument.
All that aside, the crucial failing of the article lies in Welsh’s incongruous dismissal of academic work: “Vast quantities of research is produced, much of it never cited again, and yet the number of Tory‑supporting academic historians, for example, is vanishingly small.”. Although this seems like a nonsensical throwaway remark, he is surprisingly consistent in his rejection of research, as he clearly hasn’t done any himself.
There is no data to support the claim that 80% of academics vote for left leaning parties and that only 7% vote Tory. The closest I could find was a Times Higher Education self-selecting poll which states that 7% of all university workers were intending to vote Tory ahead of the 2017 election, not just academics. That’s a pretty different reality to Welsh’s claim, even before we factor in the notorious unreliability of self-selecting polls. UEA academic Chris Hanretty has summarised a number of better weighted and balanced surveys, and found that in fact around 11% of academics are Tory sympathisers, and around 54% Labour.
Whilst there is a clear imbalance here, it’s nowhere near the 80% level that Welsh seems to have pulled out of the air. His claims are not only hyperbolic – they’re designed to undermine the role that academics have in our society. They fall in line with Michael Gove’s infamous comments that ‘We’re tired of experts’, attempting to shape the discourse around universities and academics as extremely negative. It dismisses the role that academia plays in not only shaping the future of the students who study there but also in shaping our everyday world. And moreover it is strikingly hypocritical, as through this dismissal Welsh is trying to destroy the credibility of those who disagree with him, just as he accuses lefty students of doing.
His solution to this imagined set of problems is incredibly elitist. Creating a fully marketised and privatised version of our higher education system would mean that only a select few would get the chance to have a university education, undermining all the work that has been put in to open up a historically insular system to a broader cross-section of society. It serves only to increase the stranglehold of the haves in society over the have-nots, fuelling mass inequality. But that, of course, is just what Welsh wants. It’s despicable.
Welsh’s article shows how desperate the right are to try and discredit the work of Corbyn and Labour as well as the student movement more generally. It is a purely hyperbolic tirade of alternative facts, lacking any real substance in its argument. Universities aren’t the hotbed of socialism that the right is trying to paint them as in their post-election scramblings. They are places where people come to try and further their education in their area of interest and, if they’re lucky, find a career in that area. Students voted for Corbyn not on some fickle whim, bribed by the prospect of disappearing debt. We voted for him because he presents a credible challenge to the Tory project that is making our futures look increasingly bleak. If Tom Welsh and the rest of the right wing commentariat actually did their research, they might have realised that by now.
*The article is behind a paywall, but you can access 1 article per week free if you’re happy giving the Telegraph your email. If not, don’t worry, you’re really not missing much…
Featured image CC license from Max Pixel
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