Groupthink universities

Saturday 28 October, 10:0011:30, Cinema 3Intellectual life

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It has recently been argued that a ‘groupthink’ mentality is rife within academia. According to a recent report by the Adam Smith Institute, 75 per cent of British academics are left-liberals, while the Higher Education Research Institute has found the proportion of American college and university faculty who described themselves as ‘far left/liberal’ has risen from around 40 per cent in 1989 to over 60 per cent today. The American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt is so concerned that he has launched a ‘Heterodox Academy’ to encourage greater diversity of thought.

One recent example of apparent bias is the fact that UK vice-chancellors, academics and student leaders campaigned overwhelmingly against Brexit, despite several universities being based in regions that voted heavily to leave, indicating a chasm between ‘town and gown’. Is this evidence of political bias or is it merely a result of enlightened thinking in the academy? Many academics cite a correlation between voters’ level of educational attainment and support for the EU to suggest the latter. More sceptical critics note that academic research has done very well from the EU gravy train.

There are concerns that excessive ideological homogeneity risks bias in scholarship, with certain research areas deemed politically unpalatable and consequently ignored or even demonised. Studies from the US reveal that conservative academics are discriminated against in grant reviews and hiring decisions, and more than 80 per cent of conservative academics feel there is a hostile climate towards their beliefs at work. In many disciplines, certain approaches are informally excluded when it comes to the appointment of staff. For example, anyone committed to knowledge-based education would stand little chance of getting a job in a university teacher education department. Is this ‘groupthink’ or is it a reasoned rejection of out-dated approaches and the promotion of new and better ones?

Critics suggest the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) force universities to conform to government demands in terms of seeking ‘impact’ for their research in society and in the classroom. Does this institutional framework reinforce groupthink, or actually ensure academic work is grounded in something objective and meets society’s needs rather than indulging academic whims? Some see accusations of groupthink as little more than the whine of old-fashioned, conservative academics who feel squeezed out from modern HE. But is there a real danger that academic homogeneity is leading to a decline in critical thinking and transforming universities into closed-minded echo chambers?