A lot can happen in a century and a half. In 1871 Parliament broke the hold of the established church on university education with the Universities Tests Act. This forbade Oxford, Cambridge and Durham from requiring its members to hold or profess any religious belief. The preamble is well worth a read:
Whereas it is expedient that the benefits of the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham… as places of religion and learning, should be rendered freely accessible to the nation: … And whereas, by means of divers restrictions, tests, and disabilities, many of Her Majesty’s subjects are debarred from the full enjoyment of the same: And whereas it is expedient that such restrictions, tests, and disabilities should be removed …
This October it is clear that at least some universities still seem remarkably unhappy with the idea that learning should be open to people of all opinions. Scandalously, St Andrews has told its students that if you want to study there you will not be allowed to begin studying at all unless and until you “pass” a test on such matters as white privilege by pressing the right buttons next to a whole slew of rather politically controversial questions. You must, for example, respond correctly to the question “Does equality mean treating everyone the same?” (help for cheats: No). You are told that “Acknowledging your personal guilt is a useful start point in overcoming unconscious bias”. You have to say Yes or No (no prizes here). If you don’t get enough answers right, you have to take the test again.
The irony of formally requiring adherence by all students to what is essentially a left-wing political catechism seems entirely lost on St Andrews. Indeed, the statement prepared by its PR department is a masterpiece of managerial smugness coupled with utter blindness to the idea that anything might be out of place. Students, it said, were on the committee which brought in the test, so that was all right. And besides it was developed to to “align with St Andrews’ strategic priorities (diversity, inclusion, social responsibility, good academic practice, and zero tolerance for GBV [gender based violence to those who aren’t acronym experts]).”
So now we know. St Andrews is a university that sees nothing untoward in allowing student activists (for it is nearly always the activists who sit on university committees) to help dictate who is to be allowed to study there. And the cream of the Scottish intelligentsia who administer it equally see nothing odd in imposing a test that will admit the woke and those prepared to dissemble what they think, while excluding those who genuinely want to study and have the integrity to be honest about their disagreement and defend their beliefs. But perhaps that is to be expected from a university whose strategic priorities do not apparently mention learning or education, getting only as close as a passing reference to “good academic practice.”
All this of course reflects in spades what has happened to the self-image of UK universities has become see themselves as in the last twenty-five years or so. They might once have seen themselves as tasked with passing on the wisdom of one generation to another, and their students as members of a society wanting to educate themselves through contact with experts and prepared to contribute towards the cost. Today, with the encouragement of both socialist and conservative governments, they regard themselves as simply purveyors of knowledge and skills, in which students invest for a super “student experience” now and material advantage in later life, and for which the state pays in the hope of reducing the trade deficit. No wonder those working in them prefer to gain bonus points for being innovative, even if this does involve trashing the wisdom of the past; and no wonder governments in turn increasingly see it as their function to control who gets the chance to invest now for a good chance in the lottery of later life.
But that’s enough about St Andrews. Suppose you don’t like what you see there. Oddly enough, you might now benefit from taking a look towards the other side of Europe. While highly-paid education managers just across the river from Dundee solemnly practise self-righteous thought control in the interests of equity, the first students are arriving this month at a handsome building in central Warsaw housing a brand-new university, the Collegium Intermarium.
Presently only offering courses in law, government, and classical European civilisation, this institution is much closer to what many readers may see as the real idea of a university. Its faculty is international; its teaching in English; and its mission unashamedly to build on, rather than trash, the learning of the past. Its website does not greet you with brash pictures of students leaping in the air, banner headlines such as “Top of the Class” and vacuous marketing messages that could come from any college in the kingdom.
Instead it is entirely honest. It admits to a wish to give a broad humane education to fit the recipients for roles in government, and to act as a future elite for Poland. On its website you will read that it was “founded as a response to the crisis in academic life”, a “space for scientists and students who are not afraid to ask serious questions”, and as a “haven for all those who, in search of freedom and order, are not afraid to refer to the achievements of previous generations.” Its Rector, Tymoteusz Zych, describes it as a space of free debate and direct face-to-face co-operation between teacher and student.
Unsurprisingly the left-wing press has latched onto the fact that Collegium Intermarium was seeded with money from a Polish hedge-fund, and is connected with an ultramontane Catholic legal organisation known as Ordo Iuris, which has conservative views on matters such as abortion and the family.But we must be careful before judging it on the basis of who founded it, rather than what it does.
After all, even though the LSE was founded by the Webbs and George Bernard Shaw, all remarkably parti pris politically, this is no reason to dismiss it as a political propaganda machine.The Collegium says, and there is no reason to disbelieve the claim, that it is an independent body; that its assets are under its own control; that it is receiving other donations from the Polish community abroad; and that while it does not want to be dependent on public funds it is seeking, as it has a right to under a shake-up of Polish higher education four years ago, some government support.
As regards the Collegium, this is its first year in operation, and clearly only time will tell. But all the indications are that this is a well-managed, effective and ambitious institution genuinely devoted to the kind of co-operative education and free discussion that used to mark out universities throughout the English-speaking world but no longer does.
Who knows? Instead of Polish students coming, as they now do, to UK universities that increasingly rely more on past glories and slick marketing than on any genuine academic ethos, we may see a reverse traffic from the UK to Warsaw. Anyone thinking of going up to St Andrews in 2022? You still have time to change your mind.You might even want to be really ambitious, study abroad and take the chance to think for yourself without being told by some pen-pusher what orthodoxy you have to profess.