As the Windrush scandal was breaking, it became clear that there were two parallel perceptions of the UK’s immigration system. Those who had been mangled by the Home Office machine knew the truth: that the system was cruel and broken. The other view, more popular but fabricated, was that the country’s immigration policy was lax, gullible and open to abuse.
The overall result is a climate unreceptive to the anxiety of students on British campuses
The same now applies to life on Britain’s university campuses. Last week a report found a culture of non-disclosure agreement abuse. NDAs, originally designed to prevent departing university staff from sharing professional secrets, are now being used to gag victims of sexual harassment, bullying and poor teaching in order to protect the abusers and, by extension, the universities themselves. Freedom of information requests by the BBC in 2019 revealed that UK universities had paid about £87m in NDA payoffs in the previous two years. This suggests a nationwide and institutional failure to protect students from predatory abusers, a culture of exploitation of those who are vulnerable, and a failure to meet the needs of those with disabilities. In other cases, when universities failed to adequately investigate sexual assault allegations, students were pressured into signing NDAs without even receiving a payout, the BBC report found. This is likely to be only the latest instalment in a series of revelations exposing an unregulated culture of thuggery and malpractice in academic establishments. In October, an inquiry by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) found that about a quarter of minority ethnic students, including non-British white students, said they had experienced racial harassment since the start of their course, and that not only did British universities not tackle the thousands of racist incidents experienced, they also refused to acknowledge the scale of the problem.
It is also likely that students’ negative experiences and any potential measures to address their widespread concerns will continue to be submerged by a fictional, popular narrative of British universities as a hotbed of woke culture populated by a snowflake generation wanting to eject from jobs or the public space anyone who in their sensitive eyes has offended them. Another word for this alleged behaviour is “cancel culture”. The term now has its own entry in the urban dictionary, which calls it a phenomenon perpetrated by those “quick to judge and slow to question”.
Little is said of what is arguably more prevalent and more effective: what I call wokesmearing – the stigmatising and shaming of someone for crimes of extreme political correctness. Wokesmearing has a more powerful engine than worthy students. The rightwing press and tabloid media will fix on any incident that looks like it may be an example of progressive values overstepping the mark. If none or few of these incidents are found, they are made up. Scant details are tortured into solid stories, and before those stories can be challenged or even corrected, they have passed into the mainstream narrative.
Take the case of Lola Olufemi. All she and her fellow Cambridge students wanted to do was introduce some new writers into their syllabus. In 2017, they sent an open letter to the literature faculty requesting that non-white authors be added to the curriculum. Four months later, after precisely zero complaints from fellow students or members of the faculty, and before any decision had been made, the Telegraph published Olufemi’s picture on its front page with the headline: “Student forces Cambridge to drop white authors”. Within days the story was given credibility when it was debated in earnest on BBC Radio 4. The very channel that broke the NDA story is frequently a useful tool for the promotion of stories that originate in less responsible outlets, a gullible eager consumer of fake outrage. When I spoke to Olufemi a few months later, she said the most frustrating thing, other than “being called upon to address the lies as if they were legitimate”, was that the artificial outrage obscured what was actually happening on the ground on campus, the abuse she was receiving and the chill that had been sent down the spines of other black students – many of whom were from disadvantaged backgrounds and could not afford loss of future employment prospects if they were seen as troublemakers. The whole effort to simply add more authors to a syllabus, not to replace any, had been successfully wokesmeared.
And on it goes. As university campuses become increasingly unsafe for students and employees, a carousel of mythical stories is confected, amplified and recycled. So rich has this genre of reporting become that it now has its own formula: big, flashy, pearl-clutching headline followed by a quote from someone scandalised by the latest liberty-taking, then rounded off by a tiny detail, one buried at the end, that invalidates the whole story. One such example is a BBC news dispatch from October 2017. It starts with “Cambridge Uni students get Shakespeare trigger warnings”, only to end with: “Some lecturers indicate that some sensitive material will be covered in a lecture … this is entirely at the lecturer’s own discretion and is in no way indicative of a faculty-wide policy.”
The same principle is applied to all the developments we now take as an integral part of British campus culture, such as safe spaces and no-platforming and terrified administrators cowed by leftie students. No-platforming in particular is frequently presented as a simple case of mob rule and of frightened faculties placating students, when they often, far less contentiously, involve college bureaucrats lacking the resources to responsibly curate controversial union debates and the associated right of protest that comes with that.
The repercussions of the campaign by the cynical and the credulous are not just limited to point scoring in a culture war. The overall result is a climate unreceptive to the anxiety of students on British campuses. The fact that report after report states that universities are failing to act is down to more than just denial; it is a complacency and an impunity fostered by a rightwing culture that reinforces and perpetuates the myth that liberal spaces, especially universities, are dangerous, progressive playgrounds undermining tradition and common sense. Until that propaganda is acknowledged and combated, the calls of distressed students from the UK’s campuses will continue to go unheard.
• Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist