Posted tagged ‘Adam Smith Institute’

Spoiling the party (redux)

March 7, 2017

A postscript to last week’s blog post

Hot on the heels of my comments last week came the publication of a ‘briefing paper’ by the Adam Smith Institute, claiming to have found evidence that ‘individuals with left-wing and liberal views are overrepresented in British academia’. This conclusion is based on some at best very arguable analysis, and an interesting riposte can be found in this post by anonymous blogger ‘Plashing Vole’.

Curiously the ‘briefing paper’ declares its author to be one Noah Carl, while elsewhere on the Adam Smith Institute’s website we are told it is Ben Southwood, head of research at the institute. No matter. Whoever it is, the author lost me right at the beginning, because he (assuming the author is male anyway) makes certain assumptions about how to identify where someone is on the left-right axis: assumptions which would place, say, France’s Marine Le Pen firmly on the left. And then at the end he lost me one last time by beginning the final sentence with the words ‘going forward’, an expression I would ideally like to see prohibited by law.

The key problem with the paper is that it draws conclusions from materials which would not pass muster in any decent piece of research. The main source used by the paper for its conclusions regarding party support amongst academics is a 2015 online poll open to anyone with a university email address. The author allows that this would include administrative and support staff; but of course it also includes students and, in the case of some universities, all alumni. While the poll was not uninteresting, you could not possibly use it to draw scholarly conclusions.

The analysis of this paper would not stand up to much scrutiny, and some of the passages are ludicrous (in particular that assessing the relevance of intelligence or IQ scores). For all that, in his conclusions (until he gets to the execrable ‘going forward’) he does make some valid points. The freedom of intellectual and philosophical thought that all academics must support – and which must absolutely rule out measures such as those proposed by Iowa States Senator Mark Chelgren (discussed in the last post) – should lead us all to seek to engage with views contrary to our own, and to treat them with a degree of respect. This is why ‘no-platform’ policies are unacceptable, and why an atmosphere in which dissent from received doctrine is discouraged should not be tolerated in a university. But then again, we must remember that in some disciplines, including areas in the social sciences (for example a number of economics departments), the received doctrine may not be leftwing at all.

The academy must always host an exchange of ideas, and must welcome ideas particularly when, to the majority, they are in fact most unwelcome.

A public or private academy?

March 7, 2010

The Adam Smith Institute is an influential think tank, which approaches the issues on which it comments from a ‘free market’ perspective. That puts it on what most would regard as the more right wing end of the political spectrum, though the Institute itself stresses that it is non-party and maintains good relations across the whole political field in the UK and elsewhere.

One of its most recent reports, The Broken University, has addressed the issue of higher education. The author of the report, James Stanfield of the University of Newcastle, draws some fairly startling conclusions. His key point is that ‘there is no evidence that there is any economic benefit whatsoever from transferring over £14.3 billion a year from the taxpayer (including those on low incomes) to students and universities’. However, he is not suggesting that universities are not a worthwhile investment, but rather than funding them through public money is wrong. To back up this assertion he gives a number of reasons, saying that government funding (and therefore control) has a number of consequences:

Undermining the autonomy and independence of private institutions
Crowding out philanthropic donations
The complete disruption and distortion of the pricing system
Combining and confusing academic, professional and vocational education
The widespread rationing of university places
Restricting private investment from home and abroad
Crowding out for-profit institutions and entrepreneurial talent
Restricting competition and innovation throughout the sector
Qualification inflation

The net effect, he suggests, is that public funding is an unmitigated disaster, because not only does it redistribute funding from the poor to the rich (who disproportionately benefit from higher education), it also disrupts and undermines the success and vitality of higher education. He then makes a number of recommendations, which in essence envisage the removal of public subsidies from universities (while transferring some of these resources to students instead to spend as they may decide), and the opening up of a deregulated system of higher education to private and for-profit participants.

Speaking for myself, I find his analysis interesting, but would find it hard to go with his conclusions. I would agree that public funding and control has, particularly over recent times but in fact to some extent for along time, sometimes damaged rather than supported higher education. I agree that the at first creeping and now galloping bureaucratisation has been damaging. I agree that politicians all too often meddle with higher education without really understanding it. I agree that the narrow political vision of university resourcing and funding has crippled their strategic development.

However, higher education is a public good and should not be outside the realm of public accountability and transparency. And while I do not object in principle to some for-profit higher education, I would suggest that the major world class institutions will always be public or not-for-profit entities.

But this report does raise some very important issues, and its suggestion that organising and funding universities as public sector bureaucratic agencies is not necessarily a recipe for success. There are issues here that merit debate at least, not least because we appear to have entered an era in which the traditional model of higher education has been made non-viable.