Until the 1950s, universities tended to be hot on students’ morals, if not excessively so on their scholarship. Little happened to the bone-idle or simply thick, especially if they were personable and good on the sports field or behind an oar; but woe betide the man or woman found illicitly sharing a room at night, or breaking some other moral taboo. As late as 1953, indeed, Cambridge seriously tried to send down a precocious but rebellious Mark Boxer for nothing more than allowing Granta (which he then edited) to publish a poem telling God to ‘Get out of bed, you rotten old sod’, on the grounds that it was immoral, blasphemous and inconsistent with the status of a student at Cambridge.
Since then, of course, things have changed. Universities now at least say (even if their increasingly background-obsessed admissions criteria suggest something different) that in deciding which students to let in they are dispassionately looking for the intellectual cream of society, wherever it can be found: they make no reference to personal habits, social opinions or what people get up to in private. We live, after all, in a progressive world, such matters are no-one’s business other than that of the individuals involved. The revolution is established; students’ ability to be themselves is assured.
Or is it? Look below the surface, and a new moralism is consolidating itself. It’s different, but in many ways just as priggish as the old.
One aspect of this is that, even though universities may admit students without reference to beliefs or opinions, once they get there the opinions they are allowed to express can be remarkably limited. Typically they will find a statement, by which they are bound, that the institution values free speech, but that it is committed to building an intellectual community that is genuinely diverse and inclusive, and to providing an environment where racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic speech and behaviour are not tolerated (or some similar wording).
However constricting this may be, at least it refers to behaviour in the public sphere. More worryingly, however, universities are it seems increasingly turning their attention to what are in essence entirely private activities and expressions taking place behind closed doors.
For example, a couple of years ago a number of law students were unceremoniously ejected from Exeter University (and reported to the police) when messages they exchanged within their own private WhatsApp group were leaked, and found to contain childish expressions of racism and jokes about rape. For good measure the society to which they belonged, a well-established and generally respectable university club for Exeter law students generally, was forcibly disbanded and replaced with another, presumably more carefully monitored, one.
At about the same time, there was a similar affair at Warwick, this time involving much the same kind of comments on a private Facebook group. Once again, the university excluded the students, giving rise to protests, angry Guardian articles, a successful appeal against the length of an exclusion, and then more protests against the success of the appeal (universities can’t win). And in due course history repeated itself earlier this year, this time at Durham. Private testosterone-fuelled, very adolescent chat was revealed on another closed system, which referred in a predictably hooliganistic way to sleeping with female students in various connections. Tight-lipped, the university put out a statement that such words went against its core values, and announced penalties and, in the case of an applicant, the immediate withdrawal of an offer of a place.
Also this year, there was scandal in Leicester, when a group from the rowing club at De Montfort University daubed their faces with fake tan at what seems to have been a private night out. One of them incautiously released photographs of the event. The result was predictably explosive. The university carried out a long and painstaking investigation. All involved were disciplined, and the University, sounding for all the world like a scandalised Victorian maiden aunt, put out a statement that its community were “understandably deeply upset by these photographs and by the association with ‘blackface’ and ‘blacking up’,” and that it had to be made clear that the photographs were “contrary to our values and to our ethos.”
Few readers will have much sympathy for the kind of childish and offensive nonsense that these students indulged in. It was clearly a bit of adolescent rebellion consisting mainly of saying and doing things designed to break taboos and be shocking; the only good thing about it was that, like most Adrian Mole stuff of this sort, any parent will tell you that young men grow out of it pretty quickly. But if you look at what was actually involved, in every case it seems that this was private behaviour. As has been pointed out elsewhere, no harm was done. No rapes or other sexual offences were committed, nor were any seriously likely; no racialist taunts were thrown at minorities. Nor was any of this remotely likely. It was the equivalent of the fifth form at Bessie Bunter’s Cliff House School gathering behind the bike-sheds to giggle about boyfriends and film-stars and swop apocryphal stories of conquests.
Yet when someone snitched, the universities concerned, instead of discreetly calling them in and telling them not to be so silly, solemnly turned the full force of university discipline on them, and by doing so essentially stymied their education.
Moreover, note also that apart from a possible technical offence under the catch-all provisions of the Communications Act 2003 dealing with grossly offensive material the internet, which even the Law Commission now accepts is far too wide, there was nothing unlawful about what these men did. It is not a crime to use rude words in private about racial minorities, to tell tasteless jokes about rape or to put fake tan on your face at a party. It follows that universities now see it as their function to police private conversations between students and punish the latter if they express sentiments they disapprove of – which, in their words, are contrary to their “values”.
Why? Because, it seems, of the need to protect other students and the “community”. Now, one could just about understand this if the students had made their views explicit and public: blacking up in full view of minority students to insult them, or making women feel uncomfortable by joking about raping them in their presence, is something that arguably needs to be suppressed on campus because it makes civilised co-existence impossible. But this wasn’t the case. By acting as they have in these instances, the universities are effectively saying that as far as they are concerned the entirely private behaviour of students, and the opinions they hold even if they never express them at all except in private, can now of themselves be a proper ground for their exclusion from the academic community. It is now enough, apparently, that other students do not like to sit next to people who hold such opinions in lectures or argue with them in seminars.
So, by all means send your children to university. But warn them that they had better have the right social opinions, and that if they express the wrong ones and their universities find out, you may see them back home sooner than you bargained for. Just as Mr & Mrs Boxer very nearly did in 1953.