London Metropolitan University made the news recently when comments from the Vice-Chancellor, Malcolm Gillies, on how to cater for Muslim students, went public.
Gillies said that, for many of the 20 per cent of the university's students who are Muslim, drinking alcohol was "an immoral experience"; he proposed alcohol-free zones on campus. He also nonchalantly noted that many female Muslim students "can only really go to university within four miles of home and have to be delivered and picked up by a close male relative".
At a time when competition between universities is increasing, Gillies is setting out London Metropolitan's stall: he is going to pander to or cater for the most backward elements of the Muslim community.
This demonstrates a remarkable lack of self-belief. Universities should compete on the quality of their courses, not on the likelihood of seeing someone sipping a pint of lager. Indeed, just think about the sort of students who might choose an inferior course simply because they would be surrounded by people whose morals they approved of. You'd end up attracting a uniform, censorious, unquestioning bunch of drones, not the stuff of boundless free inquiry upon which university education is supposed to be based.
And how far is Gillies proposing to push this policy? Doubtless the same students offended by the sight of a pint of bitter will be at least as upset at the presence of the university's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) society. Will Gillies tell them to pack their bags in order to corner the market in post-secondary bigots? First they came for the drinkers...
Gillies is making the Galloway Calculation, the same one that Ken Livingstone made in London's mayoral election. He is calculating that the rewards for appealing to conservative Muslims outweigh the losses of all those LGBT students who will go elsewhere. And, as Galloway found in Bradford, there is mileage in the strategy. In a world where universities are in competition, these short-term gains could be appealing.
But they will be a mirage. Ultimately a university will stand or fall on the quality of its education. The quality of the students is a large part of that. By attracting those who refuse to integrate and shunning those they disapprove of, Malcolm Gillies risks turning his university into a madrassa for the enthusiastically ignorant in the heart of London.
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