Dr Simon Clarke is an Associate Professor at the University of Reading and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He is also a Didcot Town Councillor
“Why are you reading that right-wing rubbish?” – that’s the question often asked of me, usually in an exasperated tone, by my doctoral supervisor on seeing me with a copy of the Daily Telegraph. Alternatively, I’m now quite used to “Oh, so you’re an academic?” – the response I often get, sometimes said with an air of mild suspicion, on meeting new people at local Association and constituency events. It was even the response I got on the first encounter I had with my local MP, whose own father was a professor.
Both attitudes speak of a casual expectation that all academics are, or at least should be, left-wing. I’m tired of hearing that anyone intelligent enough to be an academic must be a leftie, because “intelligent people think things through” and “don’t act on prejudice”. This conceited notion really grates on me. Similarly, the Right’s commonly-held belief that academia is a leviathan of leftist groupthink is a little wide of the mark.
It is true that most people who work in Universities, in whatever role, are more likely to vote for parties of the Left. A pre-General Election poll conducted for Times Higher Education showed that approximately three quarters of staff intended to vote Labour, Green, SNP or Plaid Cymru. Only about one in 10 intended to vote Conservative, with very nearly as many supporting the Liberal Democrats. While these ratios shift slightly between academic disciplines, all subjects lean to the left.
While this voting preference is substantial, I don’t think in its entirety, that it’s all that firm. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard colleagues at any of the Universities I’ve worked at say that voting Labour “is just what you do”. Dig a little deeper and you’ll often find some very small-c conservative attitudes. Ask them why they vote Labour and one often gets a somewhat vague and unsure response – and this is from people who routinely have to substantiate and defend the opinions and hypotheses against default scepticism and, sometimes, very strong opposition and testing criticism. This is why I think that voting Labour is, in large part, habit.
Like most people, academics usually only take an interest in party politics at election time and, unless a government policy impacts on them directly, you’re very unlikely to hear politics being discussed over morning coffee – Politics Departments excepted. Moreover, the perception that politicians of all parties only seek academic evidence to support their policies, rather than inform them, is widespread and often cited as a turn-off. That’s not to say that the academy is completely averse to politics, quite the contrary. Henry Kissinger once paraphrased Sayre’s law thus: “the intensity of academic politics and the bitterness of it is in inverse proportion to the importance of the subject” – and believe me, many of the things academics squabble about would seem incredibly unimportant to most people.
Since I became a councillor, a number of my colleagues, most of them Labour voters, have engaged me in some very sensible conversations borne out of genuine interest and curiosity. Sure, I’ve had a few extremely childish remarks and lame attempts at satire, but only from the usual suspects. I genuinely believe the hostility that previously marked relations between Conservatives and academia can be a thing of the past.
I’m not suggesting that things can be changed completely overnight, but things can start to shift. The last Labour Government certainly didn’t win a vast number of friends, despite the substantial increases in research funding that were seen in Blair’s first term. And whisper it quietly, but most academics are sanguine about the imposition of fees for students. They may well sympathise with concerns about the amount of debt that’s being built up, particularly if they have teenage children themselves, but in my experience most recognise their necessity.
So why should Conservatives give a damn what academics think? Surely, they are a lost cause; why would the party want the approbation of a small group of dyed-in-the-wool socialists? A rhetorical question of course, but don’t underestimate the impact that a charismatic lecturer can have on students. I lost count of the times I was told as an undergraduate that the problem of BSE, which was very much in the news at the time, was directly the fault of Margret Thatcher. Teachers may not change the views of anyone with firm political opinions, but like most people, most students don’t have particularly strong views.
Furthermore, constituencies near to universities with large numbers of staff members living in them, were often Tory back in the day when the parliamentary party had more substantial commons majorities; I’m thinking of such seats as Sheffield Hallam and Birmingham Edgbaston. If the Conservatives are to consolidate their majority, they’ll need to win again in such places.
Aspirational hard-working families, who are currently the recipients of much love and attention from politicians, often see education and training as a route to social mobility, be it apprenticeships or University. They’d be right too; mine was for me. Perhaps some constructive input from academics would help polish the Tories’ offer in this area.
Not only that, but most academics are very keen on maintaining standards in teaching and learning and don’t advocate so-called “progressive” teaching methods at any level. OK, the educational theorists might do, but the majority of us aren’t educationalists. I am definitely not part of the “the blob” derided by Michael Gove. If the Tories want to counter Labour’s poll lead on education, education professionals can and should contribute. Tristram Hunt gets a good hearing because he’s from academia, not necessarily because he’s right.
Academics like me stand ready to contribute, but the Party of which I am a member will need to allow and facilitate our honest, open and friendly engagement and not view us with that air of mild suspicion.