Education, Social Science

Why British Academics are Guilty of Groupthink

According to recent studies, the majority of British and American academics are to be found on the left wing of the political landscape. It is estimated that up to 80% of professional academics are left-liberals, leading to warnings of the dangers of groupthink in universities.

The current anti-Brexit, pity party mood within UK universities is part of this culture of academic groupthink prevalent in the higher education sector. Academic unions and senior university managers have, in a rare show of shared values, sought to console those seemingly traumatised by the result of a democratic referendum.

One obvious possible reason for the apparent lack of EU naysayers within universities is the inverse correlation researchers have found between the level of educational attainment and the likelihood of voting to leave the EU. It is reassuring to think that ignorance and bigotry are the cause of all our woes. But what about the nonintellectual reasons why academics might support membership of the EU so uncritically?

When experts are viewed with such famous disdain, perhaps academics should ask themselves why there is such a large gap between “town and gown”. Technocrats of all political hues have done very well from the EU gravy train. But the European working class continues to suffer from the problems caused by the Euro’s status as a secular sacrament.

Yet the academic community appears unquestioningly to support the EU. There is a worryingly lazy assumption made by most left leaning, social democrat academics that support of the EU automatically qualifies as a form of progressive politics. This is even though, as a concept, the EU’s core belief in the free movement of labour is more akin to neoliberal economic orthodoxy. And transient capital tends to work as a weapon against working class pay and conditions.

Consider the day to day destructive consequences of EU economic policy on the people of southern Europe. This makes the union’s purportedly internationalist values appear seriously questionable.

You don’t need to be an economics professor to trace the links between the abandonment of variable exchange rates across the Eurozone and a consequent inability to address regional unemployment. The EU’s own statistics for all time high youth unemployment from 2013-2015 tell their own sorry tale. In Spain, it has been as high as 55.5%, in Italy 42.7% and in Greece, 58.3%.

We also shouldn’t forget that the EU has required national electorates to vote on significant issues more than once, until they produce the correct result. This forcefully contradicts any claims that it is a union underpinned by a genuine commitment to democracy.

But perhaps it is no surprise that academics working in profoundly undemocratic, process-driven, hyper-bureaucratic institutions feel such a strong affinity with the EU. One explanation lies in the extent to which the idea of academic research as the pure pursuit of knowledge has been systematically undermined in recent decades.

Academics are now groomed from their early careers to comply with a whole series of diktats and an assessment of the quality and worthiness of their research. Since it has become second nature to subordinate one’s professional judgement to process-driven conformity, academics can seamlessly merge their own interests with the EU’s labyrinthine funding structures and bureaucratic world view.

Researchers are trained to analyse data and derive conclusions from the patterns they find. Yet despite plenty of damning data, the EU and its credo of the four freedoms (movement of goods, capital, services, and people) have become unquestioned articles of faith.

It’s all academic

Criticism of the EU’s dysfunctionality is usually met with the acknowledgement that reform is indeed needed. But the likelihood of root and branch reform is somewhat remote. The EU is an organisation so irredeemably Kafkaesque that, once a month, at vast expense, the parliamentary machine moves from Brussels to Strasbourg for four days. And then goes back again.

But anti-Brexit academics no longer appear able to differentiate between their own personal investment in the EU and the progressive social values they also claim to uphold.

It is worth remembering that it is the middle class abandonment of the working class that laid the groundwork for the Brexit result. Low voter turnout for the recent Stoke byelection (caused by Tristram Hunt MP leaving a working class constituency to head the Victoria and Albert Museum) contrasts sharply with the queues snaking around council estates on the day of the EU referendum in June 2016.

On that remarkable day, ordinary members of the electorate showed the highly educated what a principled stand looks like. Maybe even German bankers were given momentary pause for thought — before they resumed their fiscal water boarding of the Greek people.


Paul A Taylor is a Senior Lecturer of Communications Theory at the University of Leeds

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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  1. Matthew says

    A great deal of opinion and rhetoric. Any evidence to support your views?

  2. David says

    In the late 90s as a Sociology student it was clear that academics in the department were not beardy old left-wingers sauntering around spouting neomarxian claptrap but more the kind of ‘liberals’ desperately concerned with being funded by organs of the State to conduct some or other research project.

    The EU of course was an often fruitful source for this moolah. One module I took saw the German lecturer, the typical 68er style Marxist turned liberal, became purple with rage when in a seminar I came out with a string of anti-EU arguments that had the group nodding in agreement. ‘So you all agree with this little Tony Ben over here?’ he shrieked comedically.

    Local authorities, Arts and Culture, the charity sector too all saw the EU as the ultimate source for ‘funding’. Small wonder then that such an overwhelming chorus of pro-EU sentiment poured out of the liberal establishment, despite all the evidence that the EU is a top-down, anti-grassroots institution designed to render democracy impotent and ensure (often complete incompetent) technocratic management of a vast area to the specifications of big business and high finance. The outcome of this is viscerally illustrated by the plight of Southern Europe.

  3. Why is Brexit the result of a class disparity?

    I think you do need to be an economics professor to relate unemployment to the lack of variable exchange rates in the Eurozone? Aren’t there significant unemployment benefits in many Eurozone nations?

    It seems instead that without a union-driven labor movement, capital interests influence voters to deregulate in spite of any coherent organizational principles. We get reckless voting as a result. The transition is occurring from neoconservative to neoliberal to oligarchic political conditions. The voters are reacting to propaganda. At least these are some of the hypotheses that should be tested!

    A nation like Greece that is apparently under the thumb of Germany, and the IMF, is the result of certain expectations concerning government spending, national constitutions and the culture of work at the household level. The Greek constitution deliberately states that certain extremely wealthy corporations are not to be taxed! This is merely the codification of the tax-free oligarchs in most nations. Whether the cultural dysfunctions are listed explicitly or the result of incoherent judicial rulings, it is clear that legal forms should contradict the oligarchical political context which has necessitated political “solutions” like Brexit.

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