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Class War on Campus

Aman Patel and Samuel Pennifold on the LSE Class War campaign and the danger it poses to free speech and debate on university campuses.

There is strength, meaning, and power in the diversity of thought and no more so is this true than on university campuses. The KCLSU offers a broad range of societies that cater for the interests and thoughts of all students. This is part of what makes Kings such a great campus to study and learn on. But our neighbours to the north in LSE have been stoking controversy recently as it seems some students have forgotten that disagreement and difference can be a good thing.

This concerning development comes in the form of a student-run group calling themselves  LSE Class War. This group is on a self-declared mission to flatten class hierarchies on campus, rid LSE of its private school students and decolonise the university. Believers in this cause may see these aims as a means to create a more equal society, a fairer education system, and help elevate the suffering of the impoverished but we see it as nothing more than an assault on genuine diversity.

As politics on the national scale dissolves ever more into tribal wars, the trickle-down effect of the death of bipartisanship can be seen clearly on university campuses. There is less room for debate and the assessing of grey areas where the devil lies in the detail. Instead, there are only right and wrong answers based on assumptions that more often than not are faulty and lame.

One of the key pledges of the LSE Class War group is to dissolve the Hayek Society, named after Friedrich Hayek, one of the titans of 20th-century economics who was a firm believer in conservative economic policy. The Nobel prize winner pioneered the principles of the free market, defended classical liberalism, and importantly taught at LSE. The student society of his namesake champions the values of “liberty”, “progress”, “capitalism” and “individualism” according to their website.

The LSE Class War group instead see this society as only a forum for “free-market fundamentalist views which outwardly call for the oppression of working-class people”. Owing to this, LSE Class War staunchly advocate that Hayek Society and other societies like it have “no place on campus”.

Much of the modern criticism of Friedrich Hayek’s work is rooted in its use by Margaret Thatcher and her extreme economic policies. The debate now on Thatcher can mostly be called shut – whilst many feel she was a necessary evil, her policies were evil none the less and there is plenty of evidence to show that Thatcherism dramatically increased inequality across the UK.

But whilst the Thatcher take on Hayek may have produced inequality, it is wrong to state that free-market capitalism “outwardly” calls for the “oppression of the working class”. One can argue that Thatcher called for this, but to argue that the academic theories of Hayek did so too simply misses the point. This would be no different to claiming that Karl Marx outwardly calls for totalitarian oppression owing to the actions of Joseph Stalin. To suggest as much demonstrates a failure to separate economic theory from public policy. 

Whilst rising inequality can be a negative by-product of free-market capitalism, the theory does not say such issues are not to be addressed. Today many modern conservatives support policies such as universal basic income as a means to help support the poorest in society and reduce overall government spending compared to other welfare systems. 

As a society, we can only learn and broaden our understanding of new ideas and one another through the processes of disagreement, through being wrong sometimes. But such processes can only take place when one finds themselves in a diverse group of people who hold diverse opinions.

The LSE Class War group though seems unwilling to allow for diversity of thought on their campus with their opposition to the Hayek Society and free-market economics as fundamental evils. They may argue free-market capitalism is not the correct solution but to suggest banning the theory from LSE would be like banning the playing of football at Wembley.

Instead of a misguided attempt to ban the Hayek society, the movement’s members should debate and campaign peacefully against them. The economist John Maynard Keynes debated Friedrich Hayek in the economics equivalent of Godzilla vs King Kong. Such debates are important, they are the very basis of learning and allow us to navigate issues and come to conclusions about what is best. Disagreeing with the tenets of Hayek is fair but threatening free speech by banning a society is anything but.

Students are in a perfectly good position to make up their own minds on the Hayek Society. If it is indeed the case that the society is not fit for the university, let the memberships dry up and the society fizzle away owing to the consensus of the majority, not the agenda of a small minority.

The flagship goal of the LSE Class War group is the blocking of private school students from LSE. LSE Class War’s advocation of a “private school free LSE” is not a solution to inequality in education either. In fact, in many ways, it mirrors the issues of Emmanuel Macron’s closure of the ENA, an elite university in France, which will have little effect anyway as the elite will simply propagate whatever “meritocratic” institution replaces it. If there is anything we have learnt in the last twenty years is that a top-down approach does not work.

Education must be thought of like building a skyscraper from the bottom up. Yes, the pointy bit at the top might be the most impressive but it is the foundation that is the most important. Yes, a university education might be the pointy end of a system that pushes us towards higher education but the bit that is important to the individual for whatever path they take is the foundation of a nursery, primary, secondary and college education.

Each year in this country on average private school students outperform state school students because they are offered a better foundation. But students in state schools don’t perform worse than private school students simply because private schools exist, they perform worse because the government has created a toxic and unmanageable state education system in this country that cannot possibly meet the demands placed upon it.

Getting rid of private schools would just add thousands of more students to an already strained system. Fixing education in this country looks like building new schools, paying teachers more so more of the best and brightest pursue the profession, rebuilding the national curriculum and changing the way we test students. What it does not look like is banning private school students from universities. To do so would be only cosmetic and be a disservice to universities.

LSE Class Wars have missed the key ideas that need to be considered, analysed and debated. These details include bottom-up approaches to equality of opportunity in university applications and the nuances of free-market capitalism. Many, including ourselves, top economists and politicians agree with some of the group’s concerns but the difference is that this group seems only to want to dismiss any debate around how to fix the issues they have identified. This student group seems determined to fuel a class war that serves no one, lest the people who need help most in society.

Hayek’s staunch defence of civil liberty, freedoms and democratic rights is ironically being proved right by the calls of LSE Class War. King’s, for now, remains free of such a group that stands only to end free speech on campus and diversity. May that continue here because true diversity includes people from all different creeds and backgrounds. 

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