Last August, Federal Treasurer Peter Costello sparked outrage by suggesting that Australia’s high school history teachers peddled anti-American sentiment. In a subsequent interview with John Laws, he pointed to a left-wing bias in our universities, commenting that “there was a very left-wing period in Australia in the ’60s and ’70s, and I think that could be a source of anti-Americanism which is lingering today”.
In 1970, Lawrence Saha conducted a study that confirms the treasurer’s recollection that “universities, particularly the humanities parts of universities were very left in the ’60s and ’70s”.
Saha found that just over 50 per cent of academics at the University of Sydney identified their political ideology as “left”, compared with only 11.5 per cent of the general population. There are no contemporary statistics about the political leanings of Australian lecturers and tutors, but it is safe to assume that left-wing academics still dominate Australian universities.
In the United States the predominance of left-leaning thinkers is confirmed by research. In 2004, The New York Times published the results of a nation-wide survey involving 1,000 academics. It found that Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a ratio of seven to one in the humanities and social sciences.
In a separate study of voter-registration records for professors from a range of disciplines at Berkeley and Stanford, the ratio of Democrats to Republicans was nine to one. That study included academics from the hard sciences, engineering and professional schools.
Why are there so many left-wing academics?
Academia is a natural career choice for dedicated left-wing graduates. University is a safe harbour for high-achievers who are reluctant to “sell out” to the corporate monolith. The life of an academic offers financial security and social status without apparent ideological compromise.
By contrast, graduates who identify with centre-right ideology are more likely to embrace private industry. And the trend is self-perpetuating - because universities are populated by left-wing academics, those institutions are more attractive to people of that ideological persuasion. It is natural to gravitate towards people we admire and respect, and towards environments that affirm our world-view.
Some theorists argue that academics always oppose the dominant political system, regardless of what the system is. In the 1970s, a study of Swedish academics found that they were more conservative than the Swedish public, partly because a socialist government had held power for 40 years. It is the nature of academics to challenge and criticise popular thought.
Other commentators offer more sinister explanations for the “left-wing monopoly” on academia. David Horowitz, an American conservative, claims “[t]he most successful and pervasive blacklist in American history is the blacklist of conservatives on American college campuses”.
Is there a problem?
As well as generating data about the proportion of left-leaning academics at Sydney University, a study by Professor Lawrence Saha evaluated the impact of ideology on the quality of teaching. He found left-wing academics were more “research oriented and concerned about academic freedoms”.
Saha found they spent more time in committee meetings, assisting students outside class and preparing lectures. Based on these findings, there is no cause to impugn the qualifications or dedication of left-wing academics.
Today, our universities are among the best in the world. According to the most recent annual study by The Times Higher Education Supplement, Australia has 17 of the world’s top 200 universities. Of these, Melbourne University performed best - it was ranked 19th overall, and 8th in arts and humanities.
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