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Six points about free speech at universities

  • 3 May 2018

There is considerable media coverage today of the Government’s plans to alter the protection of free speech within higher education institutions. Here are six points about free speech, which were delivered by HEPI Director, Nick Hillman, to a meeting at Trinity College, Cambridge, on the evening of 2 May 2018.

1. For me, the law seems to be in about the right place on free speech issues.

This University has published a particularly good robust defence of free speech, but it ends by noting the rare instances where it can be legitimately limited, such as:

  • where people may be drawn into terrorism;
  • where the aim is inciting violence;
  • where there is a risk to the safety of other humans.

Others may take a less centrist positions, wanting either purer or more restricted free speech, but I am comfortable with the law as it is as it balances out some important things, including the safety of staff and students.

2. If you can’t debate issues freely at universities – which have the expertise, the time and resources to do it properly – where can you?

Sadly, a small minority of students in Cambridge have sometimes got it wrong. I spent a decade working for David Willetts, including during his time as the Minister for Universities, when tuition fees were raised to £9,000.

Many students disliked that policy. But I can think of only one university in the whole country where David Willetts was shouted down and unable to deliver a prepared speech: the University of Cambridge.

If your mind is so closed that you are unable to debate with a democratically-elected MP representing the biggest party in Parliament, then – quite frankly – you should probably not be at university at all.

3. The best way to defeat bad ideas is, generally, to expose them; it is not to hide them.

HEPI is non-partisan and works with all mainstream political parties but my own views are influenced by my experience standing for election in this great city of Cambridge back in 2010. In the election campaign, we candidates undertook between 30 and 40 hustings – to the best of my knowledge, that is more than in any other constituency in the country.

Often, it was just the three big parties that were invited to take part. As the Conservative candidate, people generally assumed that I would not want UKIP present because of the risk that they could attract votes off me from those inclined to vote for a right-of-centre party. The exact opposite was true. I wanted them present at every single meeting, so that the voters of Cambridge could see they offered something completely different to me and so that their positions were exposed to proper scrutiny.

4. We have undertaken the most detailed study of what students think about free speech issues.

It shows scary levels of illiberalism – on the subject of UKIP, over one-quarter of students want UKIP entirely banned from UK universities. If you hide away from such views, it’s not surprising that so many students and academics got a shock when the country voted for Brexit in 2016.

Our survey also showed deep confusion among students. It is only a little exaggerated to say they seem tempted to say yes to almost any question about free speech issues, whether it is about supporting free speech, or backing trigger warnings or supporting some elements of the Prevent duty.

5. The conclusion from our research was universities need to help students through the complexities of free speech issues, as many students seem not to have thought deeply about them before arriving in higher education.

That includes avoiding the trap that so many institutions seem to have fallen in to of introducing far too much unnecessary red tape that has to be negotiated by students or staff when putting on an event.

6. The media is not to blame.

There is not a system-wide threat to free speech across British higher education. A few high-profile cases across a huge sector do not a crisis make, and sometimes the issues in play are more complicated that can be made clear in a single short newspaper article.

But, at the same time, we should recognise that some of the apparent threats to free speech – like trying to ban a Christian Union from a welcome week event – are just too good stories for the media to ignore. So there is no point blaming newspapers for writing about the threats to free speech when such juicy material exists and given the public interest in the issue.

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