It’s time to reverse the leftward drift in our universities

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In less than 4 months Londoners will have the chance to kick out Sadiq Khan as Mayor of London and replace him with the fantastic Shaun Bailey. The 7th May will also see elections for 40 Police and Crime Commissioners, various Mayoral Elections – including in the West Midlands and the Tees Valley where the brilliant Andy Street and Ben Houchen are standing for re-election – as well as in nearly 70 councils. After gaining a “stonking” 80-seat majority last month, these elections will be a chance to keep up the momentum, elect Councillors to support our new MPs – particularly in areas where we’ve previously struggled to gain a foothold – and generally to gain a chance to show people that it is Conservatives who deliver better services, while taking as little of people’s money as possible.

Contrastingly, thanks to that majority, we should not face another general election for about 4½ years. Technically it could be 5 years, but it seems unlikely that December elections will become a regular occurrence, so I would expect we have until May or June 2024. Given there’s been 3 elections over the last 4½ years that may seem like quite a long time, but we have lots to do and there’s not a moment to lose. The strategic ways in which we should use the time we have is a theme to which I plan to return in future columns, but today I’m going to write about why winning elections isn’t enough to make Britain a Conservative country.

In the early 1970s a German Marxist sociologist and a political activist named Rudi Dutschke, influenced by the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, coined the phrase “the long march through the institutions” to describe the process whereby the far left could gain power without needing to win elections. His theory was that by influencing and, ideally, controlling the institutions and the key apparatus of the state it would be possible to exert considerable influence on how a country is run and on the views of its people.

In the UK, those institutions would certainly include the BBC, assorted Quangos, some of the bigger charities and our universities. If these institutions were disproportionately left-wing, rather than reasonably representative of society, then the expectation is that they would help to pull those who come into contact with them to the left. Given this, it’s unsurprising that at last month’s General Election the age at which a voter switched from being more likely to vote Labour to being more likely to vote Conservative was 39. From a Conservative perspective this was an improvement on the 2017 General Election when the equivalent age was 47. It would be absurdly reductionist to seek to blame one issue – there will certainly be a number of factors that help to explain why 56% of 18-24 year olds voted Labour and just 21% voted Conservative – but there is plenty of evidence that something has gone wrong with our universities.

Survey after survey has shown that the UK’s universities are increasingly left-leaning institutions with a 2017 report by the Adam Smith Institute suggesting that 8 out of 10 university lecturers are left-wing. Jonathan Haidt’s brilliant book ‘The Righteous Mind’ showed how such a heavily unbalanced dynamic can easily lead to groupthink and a failure to question ideas. It is notable therefore that amongst university graduates, Labour gained 43% of the vote. In comparison the Conservatives received the support of just 29% of graduates. When you consider the massive increase in the percentage of young people going to university, the statistical inevitability is that recent graduates are even more likely to vote Labour than graduates overall. Furthermore, September 2019 was the first year that more than half of school leavers went on to university. In 1959 that figure was 2.61%. In 1969 it had risen to 5.99%.

The increase in graduate numbers has been largely a good thing, which has to some extent gone with the grain of an economy that offers ever more opportunities for graduate-level jobs. Nevertheless it seems increasingly apparent that things have gone too far. Jobs which should not require a degree are increasingly the sole preserve of graduates. Meanwhile far too many graduates end up in jobs that do not require a degree. This has a cost to taxpayers and to the individual students, but it is also a misallocation of resources. Many school leavers who are currently going on to university would benefit far more from an apprenticeship. Often the reason that they don’t pursue this avenue is the false idea that a degree is the be all and end all and that anything else is second best. This is completely untrue.

The issue of how to arrest the leftwards drift of our universities is an important one – and, again, is an issue for another column. However we should also recognise that, now we have reached the stage when the vast majority of those who would benefit from a university education are able to pursue it, the Government should help to ensure that alternatives to university are valued and desirable.

Ultimately, even if there were no strategic advantage to seeking this sort of reform, I would still bang the drum for apprenticeships because they are a fantastic opportunity that would provide more benefit to hundreds of thousands of young people who are taking a different path. 4½ years is not a long time, but it is enough time to change the direction of travel, boost apprenticeships and help to ensure that those who won’t benefit from university have a better option. The Government should grab this with both hands.

Susan Hall is a London Assembly Member and Leader of the Conservative Group. Follow her on twitter: @Councillorsuzie

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