"Keep the Cat Free"

Just how conservative are we?

Rory Fenton on Imperial’s political viewpoint

The week before I started my first year here I went to the Fresher’s Fair at Queen’s University Belfast, my local. Going to Imperial’s the week after was a more or less similar affair – the same hobbies and sports, the same international societies and charities. But one thing stood out as missing – where was the political Left? Unlike Queen’s with its range of left wing groups all vying for attention, singing revolutionary songs and pronouncing on student fees and corporate greed, this fledgling physicist saw just two people quietly manning a Socialist Workers stall, nestled uncomfortable between stalls from the various investment banks and oil companies we all know and love on campus. The Left, it seemed, had left. The question is – has it ever been here? Is Imperial naturally conservative?


One thing stood out as missing – where was the political Left?

We certainly aren’t socially conservative. Imperial was ranked by LGBT rights group Stonewall as the most gay-friendly university in the UK and if anything is stopping students from availing of the freely distributed condoms around campus it’s the infamous “ratio”, not old- fashioned morals.

But while we may be generally apathetic, when we do get political are we, as a student body, quite right-wing? This seemed to be the case last year when Imperial College Union spoke out on the Brown Review of tuition fees. This made them no different to any other students’ union except for one thing- they spoke out in favour of the fees. So did Felix. Brown was in favour of uncapped fees, a move that even the Conservative-led coalition government opposed and yet our union, a lone island in a sea of student union outrage, backed them.

But how representative of its students was ICU’s decision? From the Union’s own survey at the time of the Brown Report, while some 90% of students (including overseas students) supported some kind of fees, just 13% agreed with a fully uncapped system, as supported by their Union. So it seems that the full extent of the Union’s stance was unrepresentative of its students. But it remains the case that 90% of students agree with paying something for our time here, putting them significantly at odds with the majority of students nationwide.

Of course the elephant in the room for such an issue is class – some would argue that Imperial students are simply posher than most and naturally lean towards conservatism to protect their vested interests. It is certainly true that Imperial students are more privileged than most – some 37% came here from private schools and just 2.9% qualified for free school meals, compared to 7% and 5% respectively in the country. But Oxford and Cambridge with their famously privileged intake still have significant left wing groups and student protest movements. And while, yes, the current Conservative leader went to Oxford, so did the Labour leader. We’re still no further.


90% of students agree with paying something for our time here, putting them significantly at odds with the majority of students nationwide.

So how does this perceived right-wards shift fit with the idea that Imperial students are apolitical? The chair of Imperial’s Conservative Society points out that “conservatism as a movement and being a member of the political party are two vastly different things”. Viewed in this way, things start to make more sense. Conservatives at Imperial aren’t so much dyed-in-the-wool Tories as libertarians, “conservatives with a small ‘c’” in the words of the Conservative Society chair. More philosophical than partisan. In fact it may well be that the relatively calm political atmosphere here enables people to have opinions that in another university would leave them ostracized.


Some would argue that Imperial students are simply posher than most and naturally lean towards conservatism to protect their vested interests.

It would seem that IC student opinion tends to be shifted to the right of most other universities but there may be many reasons behind this. It could just be that more than anything else, the calmer, more tolerant political atmosphere simply allows for a wider exploration of different ideas. A strange irony for such an apolitical place.

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Comments (16 comments)

Rory Fenton (Author)

Friday November 18 2011 15:22

Sure but why should scientists be necessarily more right wing? Most science jobs are government funded after all and the mighty Robert Winston is a Labour peer.

Rory Fenton (Author)

Friday November 18 2011 17:23

Ah I meant jobs involving science research not jobs for science grads, far point.

Most people say we're right wing-ish because we're science students but why should that be? I mean that question honestly. The Cons. Soc. chair we spoke to reckoned it was because IC students tend to get the kind of well paid jobs that the free market supplies (baking, oil etc) so maybe that's it. But is there a more fundamental/ ideological reason beyond self interest that links science student to the centre- right?

Curious to know people's opinions on this.

Rory Fenton (Author)

Thursday November 24 2011 20:47

Really interesting point, Luke. Thanks for your comment!

You might just be right about the difference in how we are taught. In science you really learn how things ARE, rather than critique them. We may accept that certain theories may possibly be wrong- ish but no undergrad physicist is going to dare criticise Feynmann's quantum electrodynamics, say, whereas a undergrad philosophy student can attack away at Marx or Heidegger or whomever. This outlook is more likely to extend to society then. (Never mind that many arts student actually study society itself of course)

Ahh you should have written this article, nice point indeed.


Padraic Calpin

Friday November 25 2011 16:22

The above discussion is interesting because it actually seems to offer a concrete reason for scientists being right wing. Though it pains me to admit, being able to swing out of a science degree and into to upper-quartile earnings brackets likely does have something to do with the general swing to the right here.

Initially, I didn't think that the idea we are told how things "are" was quite valid: Surely scepticism, questioning and debate lies at the core of the scientific process, where we must carefully analyse all the evidence given to us? How can anyone be serious about continuing in science if they don't behave like this?

Indeed, some right wingers might try to tell you that it's this close analytical approach that makes scientists more right wing, because they would have you believe that liberalism is based on nothing but wooly idealism.

[To be continued]

Padraic Calpin

Friday November 25 2011 16:26

But, the more I look at it, the more a sense of earnings entitlement seems to make sense. It all comes down to that last line of the above paragraph: How can anyone serious about continuing in academia NOT question the facts presented to them?

See, there's the thing: People aren't necessarily studying science to pursue science itself. They're here BECAUSE of employment prospects, because of higher earnings, and because they can springboard into law or finance.

Rory Fenton (Author)

Friday November 25 2011 16:34

I agree about the earnings bit.

Of course questioning established 'truths' is integral to science but we don't learn to critique in the same way as arts students. At least speaking as a 4th year physicist, I have never questioned relativity or quantum mechanics and can only question Newtonian physics because I was told how it was wrong. You need to be at a really high level to properly challenge science whereas even a GCSE student can offer a reasonable criticism of John Stuart Mill's concept of liberty, for example. Criticism is almost the means by which arts students learn, whereas scientists don't get to this stage until much further on, in my experience.


Friday November 18 2011 15:12

Of course, it could just be that we don't have any arts students.


Friday November 18 2011 17:03

Most science jobs are government-funded? Really? Not many scientists and engineers in industry then? There is, surely, a big difference between a left-leaning research community and people doing science degrees.


Friday November 18 2011 17:25

We do have liberals, they're just all snarky computer scientists who think that because they read Reddit they know all there is to know about politics.

Rory Fenton

Friday November 18 2011 19:09

Whoops I meant banking, not baking.

Important though pastries are to the efficiency of our economy.


Picky Barst

Sunday November 20 2011 02:20

#browne review


Sunday November 20 2011 02:28

Well, you are 6 times more likely to take a science A-level if you are privately educated than state educated, so it makes sense.

Also, "so it seems that the full extent of the Union’s stance was unrepresentative of its students." from "while some 90% of students (including overseas students) supported some kind of fees, just 13% agreed with a fully uncapped system" is completely unfair. I'd like to see what you're backing that up on, I'm pretty sure if you got the data for how many students backed the £9k fee cap the Union was representative, look at the response for the White Paper for example.


Wednesday November 23 2011 22:17

We are the 1% ;)

Luke Sheldon

Thursday November 24 2011 16:47

My personal view is that Imperial conservatism is due to the lack of arts. I've come from Oxford uni and although the private school percentage was greater there was a much stronger left wing presence. The first Oxford march against the fees had probably 10-20% of undergrads showing up, which is impressive. However there was little involvement from the scientists in the left wing politics. I think this is partly because most people at uni (especially this one) are privelaged and where as the arts normally get you to critique society and help develop compassion for those around you this is not part of a science course. Also the fact that science graduates, especially at top uni's are on top of the graduate pile. Well paid jobs are abundant and a sense of entitlement and achievement comes with this, quashing any initial left wing thoughts by the end of the degree as focus is given to their careers and themselves.

Luke sheldon

Friday November 25 2011 08:33

Cheers, but just to prove the point further, I didn't actually come up with that idea, my friend who's a geographer did when I remarked that Imperial appears really right wing


Saturday November 26 2011 11:05

From my experience, it is because of the environment. Anything vaguely political or not in keeping with 'Imperial's image' is shut down. A few examples:

1. Many people feel Andrew Lansley's changes to the NHS in the healthcare reform bill are damaging, yet he was invited to Imperial to open up their new global health centre. Students who wrote in to protest the choice of speaker were 'blacklisted' and banned from the event.

2. The campaign for Babar Ahmad, a previous employee of Imperial, to have a fair trial was quashed by the trustee board.

3. Very little info on how to protest the tuition fees was provided.

4. Just this week, the non-political exhibition by Tamil students to highlight the atrocities happening in their country of origin was told to be removed by the Rector. He came down to see it and did not even communicate directly with those students, but through the ICU. I presume he returned to his student-funded mansion afterwards.

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