Issue 294: 2021 09 23: University Issues

23 September 2021

University Issues


By Lynda Goetz

There have been a number of developments on the University front over the last week or so.  Do any of them bring hope of a change in a system which one young journalist, Madeline Grant of The Telegraph, described in an article as ‘rotten’?  Perhaps one of the most hopeful is the announcement of the early retirement of Professor Stephen Toope from his position as Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge.  The surprise resignation of music Professor Paul Harper-Scott from his position at The Royal Holloway may also offer a small ray of light.  What St Andrews beating Oxbridge to the top spot in The Times and Sunday Times Good University guide says is altogether more obscure; and as for Worcester College Oxford apologising for running a pre-term Christian event on its premises, that just takes us back to all that is wrong with the system.

Professor Stephen Toope has been in position since 2017.  The post is normally held for seven years, but Professor Toope apparently feels the need to reassess his life in the light of ‘the upheaval of Covid’ and will step down in September next year to spend more time with his children and grandchildren at home in Canada.  His time at Cambridge has been marked by controversy.  Supporters of the Canadian human rights lawyer point to his commitment to sustainability and zero-carbon as well as his attempts to make the institution more ‘transparent and robust in its processes’.  His detractors highlight the way he has kowtowed to China and the scheme he was forced to abandon which would have had students and faculty members reporting ‘Stasi-like’ on each other for ‘micro-aggressions’.  Under his watch, Cambridge University, like a number of others in the Russell Group of Universities, has accepted large sums of money from China to fund departments and courses, not to mention accepting ever greater numbers of Chinese undergraduates and graduates who, to a large extent, subsidise UK students.

The resignation of Professor Harper-Scott also came as a surprise to the academic establishment.  It was accompanied by a statement expressing the Professor’s dismay over ‘cancel culture’ and the dogmatic attitudes of universities to ‘decolonisation’.  He considered that in his own field this could lead to students being unable to learn Beethoven and Wagner, because of the view that “19th century musical works were the product of an imperialistic society”.  This would be “in the frankly insane belief that doing so will somehow materially improve current living conditions for the economically, socially, sexually, religiously, or racially underprivileged”, he added.  He further warned: “In recent years the dogmatic mode of thinking, in which uncritical commitments are enforced by mechanisms involving public humiliation, no-platforming and attempts to have scholars fired, has come to seem like it has become endemic.  If universities become a place where that basic commitment to scepticism and a critical mode of thinking is increasingly impossible, they will have ceased to serve a useful function.  I am not optimistic.”

Oxford and Cambridge have long been regarded as the acme of our academic institutions here in the UK.  Getting to study at either one of these ancient and venerable universities has generally been regarded as a pinnacle of academic achievement.  Has Scottish University St. Andrews – the alma mater of our future king and queen, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and indeed the third oldest university (after Oxford and Cambridge) in the UK – finally succeeded in toppling the two English universities from their perch?  The answer to this is not as straightforward as it may at first seem.

There are several University League tables, and The Times university rankings is just one of them.  As  and Wikipedia both point out in detail, these league tables are based on a variety of measures each of which contributes a percentage towards the final score.  Different tables put a different emphasis or weighting onto different measures, which of course influences the final score and outcome.  The Times ranking, like The Guardian’s, puts student satisfaction heavily into the mix.  Research plays no part at all in The Guardian table and carries a lot less weight in The Times than it does for example in the QS World University rankings.  However, these are compiled with different aims in mind.

Oxford and Cambridge students have since 2016 refused to take part in the student satisfaction surveys, meaning ratings for this year took the last available data and applied a sector-average revision based on the overall decline in student satisfaction since they were last involved.  St Andrews on the other hand has benefited from the way it has managed to maintain student satisfaction as it moved its small-class teaching model online.  Elsewhere pandemic-associated problems have caused student satisfaction to plummet.  In the QS rankings, based solely on research and with no measure for student satisfaction, St Andrews has moved up from 96 to 91 in the rankings; Oxford is still ranked second (after Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Cambridge third equal (with Stanford).  Imperial College and UCL come seventh and eighth equal respectively.  Edinburgh is placed at 16.

So, from a research point of view, this country is still punching above its weight in the world rankings for universities (although as Ms Grant suggests in her article in some areas of science and technology our universities are unhealthily reliant on ‘tainted money’).  In the tables compiled in the UK for the UK whose primary purpose is to inform potential undergraduate applicants, the current dissatisfaction with aspects of teaching and support is highlighting a different problem.  Universities throughout the pandemic have continued to charge students the same fees in spite of offering online teaching only and what is undoubtedly a diminished university experience.  Unsurprising therefore that student satisfaction ‘has fallen off a cliff’.  In spite of this, twenty out of twenty-four Russell group universities have said that a proportion of undergraduate teaching will remain online.  This surely is self-serving in the extreme?

The primary purpose of universities may well be research, but there is, and always has been, also an obligation to teach.  In arts subjects, this element has been gradually reducing over the decades, to the point where in some departments students were getting as little as 6 hours face-to-face engagement a week, even before the pandemic.  Now that undergraduates are most definitely consumers, their dissatisfaction with systems which put their interests way behind those of the institution itself is going to cause fallout.  At the same time, allowing those same undergraduates to dictate the moral and political tone of those institutions is also wrong.  ‘Snowflakes’ (although I am not sure I am any longer permitted to use such an ‘offensive’ word)[i] unable to deal with opinions which differ from theirs and wanting conformity of views with no debate are dramatically altering the university experience.

The Daily Telegraph reported this week that the President of the Students’ Union had complained to the Provost of Worcester College about the fact that Christian Concern (an evangelical Christian group) held its week-long annual Wilberforce Academy (a conference for young people) at the College before term started.  Worcester College responded by apologising for the ‘distress caused’ and pledged to put the funds received towards ‘diversity initiatives’.  What?!  The college was surely legitimately ‘sweating its assets’ and using the space at its disposal, during a time when students were not in residence, to provide a venue for a religious organisation (representing, it should be said, what used to be regarded as the majority religion of this country) to hold a week long camp/conference for young people.  Had that conference been Muslim, would anyone have dared to object?  As it is, representatives of the student body decided the conference was Islamophobic as it included a discussion on the ‘nature of Islam’.  After discussion with student groups Worcester College they said that they would use the profits from hosting the Wilberforce Academy to fund “dedicated equality, diversity, and inclusivity initiatives”.  The spokesman added, “We acknowledge that this was a serious failure that has caused significant distress, and we apologise unreservedly to all those who have been affected.”

I was reminded of a cartoon I was sent last week.  A traveller stands in front of a board which proclaims, “WARNING.  This is an inclusive society and if we feel you are talking, thinking or behaving in a non-inclusive way, you will be EXCLUDED”.

Rather ironically, The Telegraph apparently received the following comment from the college, “Worcester College is committed to the protection of freedom of speech.  Our apology to students did not impact on this right and no event was cancelled”.  Well, I guess that is technically accurate.  However, their claim that they will carry out an ‘urgent review’ of their booking process rather suggests that they have not looked too closely at the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill currently making its way through parliament.  This requires, inter alia, that education providers and student unions ensure that use of their premises is not denied to someone because of their ideas, beliefs or views.  Sadly lawyers do not seem convinced about the clarity or benefits of the bill (See Withers’ blog by associate Chloe Harris), so perhaps we just have to continue hoping that the zeitgeist will change.


[i] Ofcom this week added a number of ‘offensive’ words to their list of swear words and offensive terms, which could potentially upset audiences.  These included ‘remoaner’ and ‘snowflake’, although for clarification these were classified as probably only mildly offensive.


Cover page image – Tetiana Shyshkina, Unsplash


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