Can we trust our universities and colleges?

This is the first in a series of five articles on the state of academia.

In this introductory article to a series for UK Column, we pull back the curtain on the reality of education today. We show how universities have long foregone their mission as beacons of objective research and instead are promoting governmental and global agendas. We also reveal the tools for control as including authoritarian leadership, peer review, a culture of bullying and overt censorship.

The costs to society are immense, not only because graduates take their controlled thinking into the world at large, but also because research conducted in universities percolates into the body of society including schools and public policy. What we are witnessing is the end of education as a system for developing Critical Thinking and knowledge, and its replacement by a system to ensure compliance in a post-truth world. This series of articles suggests that the only way objectivity can be restored is through the establishment of new institutions free from government control.


The objectives of a liberal education

The ideals of Critical Thinking can be traced back to Socrates who, to use a phrase from Dr Bret Weinstein, “helped exercise the brains” of the youth of Athens. Socrates’ approach was enshrined in his belief that “a life without investigation is not worth living”, and this approach inspired the teaching of the Trivium and the Quadrivium from 500 BC up to mediaeval Christian times. The Trivium consisted of the study of grammar, logic and rhetoric, while the Quadrivium for older pupils focused on Music, Geometry, Arithmetic and Astronomy. Fast-forward several hundred years and we find the Socratic tradition re-emerging in Descartes’ view: 

If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things. 

This way of thinking is echoed in Jung’s view: 

The ability to ask questions is the greatest resource in learning the truth.

Likewise, there are echoes in Einstein’s pithy “Question Everything”.

In nineteenth-century Germany, Humboldt carried on the torch in his conception of universities as places where mind and character were developed, and neutrality and freedom from ideological and private interests reigned supreme. A legacy of this philosophy survives in Stanford University’s motto Die Luft der Freiheit weht—“The wind of freedom blows”—and a glimpse of this approach emerged in Britain in 1976 when the then Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, launched the ‘Great Education Debate’. This was underpinned by the twin objectives of preparing young people for the economy whilst also developing “lively, inquiring minds and an appetite for further knowledge that will last a lifetime”. The tension between these two aims was left unresolved, and we look now at where colleges and universities sit today in this debate. 


The objectives of universities today

A perfect illustration of the role assumed by universities comes from an article written for the World Economic Forum (WEF) website in 2020 by a Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Oxford University and a professor from Queensland University. Remember that Oxford has headed the league table of universities in the Times Higher Education list for the seventh consecutive year in 2023, and so a pronouncement by Oxford reverberates throughout the 1,660-plus universities in the world. Here is what the article said about the role of universities today:

Through their engagement, teaching and research, universities must redouble their efforts to work alongside corporations, governments and NGOs as they search for new business models and policies to assist ‘the Great Reset’.

The Great Reset, or Fourth Industrial Revolution as it is also known, is the WEF’s plan for a technocratic society in which people “own nothing and are happy” and the place of education in this, so we are being told, is to be handmaiden to this dystopian vision. You can read more in this 2023 WEF document (entitled Education 4.0, in other words, education for the Fourth Industrial Revolution), where the role of education is limited to ensuring that “skills acquired during early childhood, primary and secondary education continue to be developed and defined in the workplace”. This document also states that:

Most education taxonomies that pertain to childhood through secondary education identify three primary groups of aptitudes: (1) abilities and skills, (2) attitudes and values, and (3) knowledge and information. The Education 4.0 Taxonomy places particular focus on the former two categories, as experts and employers indicate that these learning areas will require additional emphasis in future education systems relative to the emphasis they get today.

Cover page of the WEF White Paper on Education

Cover page of the WEF White Paper on Education:


Universities and Further Education colleges as handmaidens to the establishment

It seems that academia has long controlled the narrative to suit the wider purposes of society. The unspoken need is to protect traditional paradigms, with grant funding and peer review providing the electric wire that keeps thinking within controlled bounds. As an anonymous historian writes:

Intriguing new findings generate a fair amount of anxiety, [and] [...] are less likely to be published than routine, iterative work.

One (recently resigned) German academic in the English-speaking world, going by the name ‘Eugyppius’, is more portentous still, writing that:

Progress has stopped in many areas, not because there is nothing new under the sun, but because entire fields are no longer able to process or incorporate novel findings at all [...] with reigning paradigms ossified.”

Note that the intense pressures preventing academics from speaking out against, or even questioning traditional paradigms means that whistle-blowers like Eugyppius are often anonymous.

However, increasingly, many are unafraid to write under their name, like Professor Grant Schofield, a New Zealand Public Health expert, who wrote an Open Letter on his website (now deleted) about the shifts that have caused him to fall out of love with the education system. As he explained:

For most of my career, I was in love with the “university” and the role it had in society. I’m gutted now to have lost that love. I think I lost my love because we no longer deliver on the most important part of what we promised to do. We are no longer the ‘critic and conscience of society‘.

To highlight the disparity between the university of the past and what he sees now, he writes of how academics in the past were free “to conduct quality science, engage in robust public and scientific debate in our fields with a broad mandate of making the world a better place and moving knowledge forward for the betterment of humankind.”

Professor Schofield contrasts this with the present context where, in his words “the cancel culture and avoiding debate about issues of race, health, fairness, economic policy, and much more is […] endemic in university culture.” He even alludes to the great irony that universities “may end up inadvertently cancelling themselves.” 

Similar sentiments have emerged from a former Dean of the Harvard Medical School, Professor Jeffrey Flier, who has spoken of the emergence of a gatekeeping function within and outside the academy that assesses teaching and research outputs against political and ideological benchmarks. His fear is then that the mixing of research and politics will become more prevalent, “to the detriment of scientific progress and the integrity of the scientific community.” 

How best can we understand this gatekeeping function? Well, it seems to rely on a number of tools that include authoritarian leadership; peer review; the cancelling of academics and their research; control over the academic lexicon; and “trigger warnings” concerning reading material.

In this introductory article, we focus on the last two of these elements; we enlarge on the others in subsequent articles. We will also propose solutions, once the most important of the problems have been highlighted. So, for an insight as to the control on thinking exercised by academic institutions, let us turn to trigger warnings first.


Trigger warnings 

It may sound strange, but students in universities are increasingly being warned about the content of materials: for example, the themes of novels. These warnings come in the form of “trigger warnings”, statements of caution that alert people to potentially upsetting or disturbing material. Proponents have emphasised the role of trigger warnings in creating an inclusive atmosphere for minority or disadvantaged students, but critics fear that these warnings infantilise students and serve to discredit certain texts. Let us look at the evidence to see what this points to.

Finding the evidence, in the UK at least, is not difficult, since the Times newspaper sent out almost 300 Freedom of Information requests concerning trigger warnings to all 140 universities in the UK. One university heavily involved in producing these was the University of Exeter, with the main incidence of trigger warnings occurring within their Faculty of the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. This is one of the university’s three faculties, and in April this year, it created a manual for lecturers on the topics that students might find “sensitive”. 

The guidance provided in the manual is nothing short of extraordinary. Not only does it suggest that a “content notice” be included “when content that may be deemed sensitive is being taught and discussed in class, or used in teaching and learning materials", but it also identifies the topics which might trigger a content notice. The manual identifies no fewer than thirty-four topics that include “youth” and “old age” as well as “Empire and Imperialism”, “political belief”, “sex”, “sexual relations”, “poverty”, “class and social background”, “unemployment”, “homelessness”, “disability” and “religious belief”.

Exeter University does not have a monopoly on this second-guessing of people’s sensitivities. At the University of York, for example, archaeology students have received a warning that they will view images of "human remains”, and Essex University has removed a novel—the 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead—from reading lists because of concerns about graphic depictions of slavery.

At Sussex University, meanwhile, the classic play Miss Julie has been removed from a reading list due to its discussion of suicide, and the University of Chester has issued trigger warnings concerning Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, The Hunger Games and Northern Lights, on the basis that these can produce some “difficult conversations about gender, race, sexuality, class and identity”.

And that is not the end of the matter. At Newman University, Birmingham, a content warning has been placed on the Bible, alerting students to the fact that it “includes themes of sexual violence and abuse”. At the University of Northampton, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has been accompanied by a trigger warning; and at Aberdeen University a trigger warning was placed on Beowulf, the Old English epic poem dating to between the eighth and eleventh centuries. This warning was justified on the grounds that the poem allowed people to “explore controversial topics that could otherwise be difficult to address in an inclusive and supportive environment”.

And on and on it goes, around Britain. The Cambridge University Centre for Teaching and Learning (CUCTL) told staff that any books and plays featuring violence, discrimination and illness should carry a warning content note. They argue, like Northampton University, that warnings like this make education more inclusive by preventing excessive distress on the part of students.

No surprises, then, that Cambridge issued a content note on certain children's books—for example, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on The Prairie, which could, it is claimed, potentially offend because of “stereotypical depictions of Native Americans”. In a similar way, academics at Royal Holloway, University of London, issued a content warning on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, alerting students that it included themes of “child abuse”, “domestic violence” and “racial prejudice”.

Sanity or madness? Some regard trigger warnings as protective of student sensitivities, but others regard them as an attack on academic freedoms, which are protected by law. Indeed, Brendan O’Neill, editor of the online magazine Spiked, has said that they “are such a slippery form of censorship since they don’t forbid reading, but discourage it.”

In a similar way, senior management at Cornell University in New York has decided not to allow trigger warnings, arguing that they could compromise academic freedom and freedom of inquiry. If these are warranted concerns—and they do appear to be compelling—then it is disturbing to see so many institutions issuing these warnings.

If you think that trigger warnings are at best unwarranted and at worst an attack on academic freedoms, what will you make of moves in New Zealand to control the lexicon of academics and students? The extraordinary story is told in the next section.


Controlling people’s language

The largest educational institution in New Zealand, the Crown entity known as Te Pūkenga, was created in April 2020 to run New Zealand’s sixteen institutes of technology and polytechnics. In February 2023, it created a ‘Writing Style Guide’, a major plank in its plan to:

[...] reimagine learning in a way that is purposeful and creates real value for all people.

Does it in fact reimagine education in a purposeful way? 

Well, the guide, aimed at the staff of these tertiary education institutions, offers its own version of the language of gender, as well as a lexicon of plain English to replace ‘big words’ and ‘technical language’ with ‘simpler alternatives’. In terms of gender, we read that:

We use pronouns that are gender neutral unless we are referring to a specific individual and we know their preferred pronouns.

However, no explanation is offered as to the evidence to support the marginalisation of biological sex, nor as to the options available for those who do not accept the substantial evidence for sex as a biological rather than a social construct. Given that the guide is presented as one that is of value to all people, failure to address this point is a failure to adopt inclusive values.

In terms of the English lexicon of what is termed plain English, here is a sample of words that, according to this Writing Style Guide, should be replaced with a simpler alternative:

a number of —> some, approximately
accelerate —> speed up
develop —> grow, make
employ —> use
evaluate —> check
examine —> look at
explain —> show, tell
feasible —> can be done, workable
identical —> same
immediately —> at once, now
in many cases —> often
inquire —> find out
legislation —> law
magnitude —> size
majority —> greatest, longest
option —> choice
outcome —> result
participate —> take part
prepared —> ready
reduce —> cut
statute —> law
uncertain —> unsure
value —> cost, worth

Is this not simply breathtaking? We say this knowing that Critical Thinking, an activity that according to many should lie at the heart of education, rests on the critical examination and evaluation of evidence, now reduced to just “looking at” and “checking” the evidence. So what we are witnessing here is the blatant dumbing-down of education through reduced vocabulary and critical-thinking skills.

Let us take an example. Imagine that you were seeking to ascertain whether a medicine does what it claims, or that historical evidence is accurate: you are now being invited to “look at” the evidence (a term that implies a cursory check rather than the thorough investigation implied by the word “examine”) and then “check” it (a verb implying cross-comparison with existing data, rather than the more profound investigation implied by the term “evaluate”). The casualty in all of this is Critical Thinking and, as a consequence, truth.

You have only to glance through the suggested replacement words to see distortions of the truth at play. For example, the notion that the term ‘legislation’ is synonymous with ‘law’ is quite simply incorrect, since law can take many forms, including natural law and common law, and these forms of law do not include legislation, a lower form of law. Then the suggestion that the phrase “a number of” has the same meaning as “some” is alarming, since the word “some” is neutral as to the proportion of elements involved, unlike the phrase that implies a high proportion.

Ironically, the document speaks of the need to “improve outcomes for Māori learners” and this advice twice uses one of the “big” words—namely “outcomes”—that it decries. So, given that even the authors of this document could not abide by their advice, what is the impulse behind it?

A number of thoughts come to mind. Perhaps the aim is to limit people’s thinking and critical-thinking skills and thereby dumb people down? After all, making the lexicon a blunter instrument will temper people’s ability to express themselves with nuance and subtlety. In fact, the ultimate outcome—there’s that word again—will be the marginalisation of the truth. All this puts limits on the vocabulary available to people.

Given the power of language to shape thought, it is interesting to find Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four analysing the way in which the fictional language of Oceania, “Newspeak”, diminished, rather than extended the range of people’s thinking. Let us remind ourselves of the key elements in this language.


The Language of Newspeak

In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the character Syme describes Newspeak, the fictional language of the tyrannical government operating in Oceania:

We’re destroying words—scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone [...] What justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains the opposite in itself. Take ‘good’, for instance. What use is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well, better, because it’s the exact opposite, which the other is not.

In a spine-chilling appendix to the novel, Orwell explained that Newspeak was designed to make all forms of thought, other than that of Ingsoc (the language of the totalitarian state), impossible. As put dialogically in the novel itself:

Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.

In fact, it is not difficult to see how the effect of Newspeak is to shut down Critical Thinking and any inkling of the truth. In the context of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the reasons are clear enough, since Oceania is presented as a country at permanent war with two other power blocs, Eurasia and Eastasia—and, as the Greek playwright Aeschylus shrewdly pointed out, "In war, truth is the first casualty."

So it is today. Whereas in Nineteen Eighty-Four, we had Newspeak, we now have trigger warnings, the censoring of texts and reworked vocabularies, all designed to shut down thinking that can prize open the door to truth.


Sounding the alarm

The progressive degradation of tertiary education has not gone unnoticed and is exposed in multiple places. We have powerful books such as Hamilton and Maddison’s Silencing Dissent: How the Australian Government is controlling public opinion and stifling debate (2007); then we have Professor Peter Fleming’s Dark Academia: How Universities Die (2012), John Smyth’s The Toxic University (2017) followed a few years later by the Secret Professor’s The Dark Side of Academia: How Truth is suppressed (2022).

There was also an open letter in the Guardian signed by 126 senior academics which predicts the current adverse climate and poignantly pleads, ‘Let universities do what they do best—teaching and research’ (7 July 2015). There is also a Substack blog, overseen by the two authors of this article, which highlights the urgent need for a new, uncorrupted institution.

What has come from these exposés? Over the passage of almost twenty years since the first of the above books was written, restrictions and sanctions have only tightened, so it is vital that the reign of terror stops and the public become aware of the tyrannical efforts by university management to strangle the exercise of ground-breaking, impartial research.

Many have watched in horror as colleagues are sucked into an intellectual void of ego-dominated commercialism, where an article in a ‘top’ peer-reviewed journal matters more than the futility of its contents and where, in the words of Peter Fleming (Professor of Organisation Studies at the University of Technology, Sydney), staff and students endure a “psychological hell”. The barren intellectual landscape in universities filters down to British colleges and schools which, obsessed as they are with Ofsted rankings, recently saw the tragic suicide of a headteacher. This situation can no longer be ignored.


Charting the territory and mapping solutions

It will take some considerable courage for academics, students and their parents to find a home for “lively, inquiring minds” that lies outside mainstream education. Courage is what is needed if we are to escape the effects of a captured education system that seeks to control knowledge and thinking. The first step is to consider the purpose of education in the twenty-first century, and once underway, this period of reflection can give way to the empowering of parallel structures. 

So stay tuned for our next article, as we bring currently hidden information concerning education—whether in universities, colleges and schools—to the fore. This will then prepare the ground for exciting solutions that serve the whole of society, and not just those who use it to maintain top-down control.


Main image: Queen's College, Melbourne | licence CC BY 2.0