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Liberal democracy at risk, warns Patten

Ruth Gledhill - The Tablet - Thu, Jun 21st 2018

Liberal democracy at risk, warns Patten

The Conservative peer Lord Patten of Barnes, Chancellor of Oxford University, has outlined the urgent need to speak out for the role of universities as bulwarks of liberal democracy.

Lord Patten 
Photo: John Cairns, Oxford University

Delivering the Newman Lecture at Pembroke College, on 24 May, organised by Campion Hall in association with St Benet’s Hall and Blackfriars, and titled: “The Idea of a University in the 21st century”, Lord Patten warns, in a speech seen beforehand by The Tablet, that the foundations of liberal democracy are being eroded “at an accelerating pace”.

He says: “Newspaper columns and book titles are full of gloomy forecasts of the decline in western liberal values and increasing authoritarianism, as the case for liberal democracies is shredded by economic failure and social inequity, by the effects of the internet on both identity politics and the traditional media, by the undermining of civic institutions, and by a decline in the self-confident assertion of liberal values.”

Autonomous universities are among the most important institutions in free societies, which is why authoritarian leaders and governments attack them, Lord Patten says.

He criticises a “growing tendency” to question some of the fundamentals of university education such as self-governing independence in teaching and research and commitment to evidence and fact-based argument.

“We have also witnessed an assault on science and the scientific method and a persistent and growing tendency to regard universities and their central mission as part of a liberal conspiracy directed against the majority of the community,” he continues.

“In Britain, the fact that 75 per cent of those with a university education – and probably a higher figure among the university-educated young – voted in the 2016 Referendum to remain in the European Union must, of course, be the result (so suggest those who hunt avidly for traitors and ‘enemies of the people’) of warped and propagandising teaching and curriculums.”

Newman, who was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in Cofton Park, Birmingham in September 2010, and whose canonisation is expected, delivered a series of lectures in Dublin in 1852. Published as The Idea of a University, Newman advocated a liberal Catholic education.

Lord Patten agrees that Newman does not provide the template for a twenty-first century university, but adds: “What he does still give us are the arguments for an unconstrained and uninhibited pursuit of knowledge and understanding.”

He suggests that more government funds should be channeled towards universities, pointing out that public expenditure on universities has never been given the same priority as spending on schools.

He also argues that universities should be “bastions of freedom” in any society, free from government interference in their teaching and research while promoting the clash of ideas.

“We should also stand up for liberal values within the academy. If we allow ourselves to be colonised by illiberal political correctness, this will be used against us by people who wish us ill.”

He also criticises some recent trends in some educational institutions: “When some students and teachers in America and in Europe contend that people should not be exposed to ideas with which they disagree, they are plain wrong. No ‘ifs’, no ‘buts’. ‘No platforming’, to use that graceless phrase, is wrong. So, too, the call for ‘safe spaces’. A university should not be a ‘safe space’. That is oxymoronic.”

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