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THAT WAS THE WEEK THAT WAS: Free speech and academic freedom

  • 20 February 2021
  • By Nick Hillman

Free speech and academic freedom in higher education institutions came back with a vengeance this week, as the Government announced their long-awaited proposals.

It is one area where the main players have a tendency to imply their positions are more black-and-white than they really are.

For example:

  • the Government may sometimes sound like absolute defenders of free speech but they also oversee the Prevent Duty, which is widely thought to have limited on-campus activities; and
  • the UCU may condemn the Government for ‘fighting phantom threats to free speech’ but they simultaneously trumpet their submission of ‘a formal allegation to the United Nations against the UK government over its non-compliance with academic freedom.’ 

In recent years, there have been some real and well-publicised instances of free speech violations, plus a Government keen to respond to them by speaking out and toughening up its own legislation. It is as if there has been a small amount of kindling puffing away for ages and then someone has come along and thrown some more wood on top.

It is important to remember the violations have been few and far between and have often been overblown in significance. Take the famous case of a Christian Society that was banned from a freshers’ fayre or David Willetts being blocked from delivering a speech at the University of Cambridge during his time as the Minister for Universities. In the first instance, there was a promise that the ban would not be repeated and, in the second, a ring-leader was rusticated.

On the other hand, we do not know how many events that might otherwise have occurred never even got off the ground because of the fear of a furore. Yet, in practice and in general terms, vice-chancellors have often proved doughty and outspoken defenders of free speech, as has the outgoing Chair of the Office for Students, Sir Michael Barber.

Part of the difficulties that arise when thinking through these issues stems from the fact that students may often enter higher education institutions having typically not thought through the issues in much detail.

Although, prior to the 2016 referendum, HEPI research found more than one-quarter of students wanted to ban UKIP from campus, we found little to suggest this was the result of deep thinking. Our analysis of polling among students reported: ‘It is not always clear whether the results reflect confusion or muddled-thinking, or whether they simply reflect a complex picture on a complex set of issues.’

We concluded:

Perhaps the overwhelming message from the survey is that higher education institutions need to help their students, particularly their younger students, through the thicket. It has become a cliché to say students are partners in learning, but they need to be led too. Where free speech is curtailed to the extent that it is limiting a university’s core functions, it should be brought out into the open for debate among both students and staff.

In his Foreword to the new paper on free speech and academic freedom, the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, writes, ‘amongst the oddball, incorrect and challenging or downright offensive ideas will be found those that will transform our society and revolutionise our worldviews.’ 

That is true. Equally, the Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion may nonetheless find they spend much of their time defending campus visits by people pushing those ‘downright offensive ideas’ too, perhaps from people like Milo Yiannopoulos or Nick Griffin. Darwin they ain’t.

Indeed, perhaps the most challenging task of the new Champion will come if (or when?) provocateurs seek to stress-test the new rules. One extreme example of what this might mean comes from the mid-1980s, when the determination of one far-right activist, Patrick Harrington, to attend classes at the Polytechnic of North London became a cause célèbre.

Nigel Copsey’s Anti-Fascism in Britain recalls that there were:

mass student pickets, confrontations between riot police and students, High Court action, the presence of a High Court tipstaff in classes ruling what could and could not be discussed, the threat of lecturers being jailed and, unsurprisingly, calls from the right-wing press to close the polytechnic down.

Before it died down, the episode also involved the resignation of the Polytechnic’s Director who declared he had acted ‘in a totally fascistic manner’ as well as the imprisonment of two students.

How would the new Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion respond to a similar situation today, I wonder.

HEPI’s work on free speech issues includes: Free Speech and Censorship on Campus (HEPI Occasional Paper 21, 2019) by Corey Stoughton;  Cracking the code: A practical guide for university free speech policies (HEPI Report 109, 2018) by Diana Beech; and Keeping Schtum?: What students think of free speech by Nick Hillman (HEPI Report 85, 2016).

1 comment

  1. Liz Morrish says:

    In response to this point:
    the UCU may condemn the Government for ‘fighting phantom threats to free speech’ but they simultaneously trumpet their submission of ‘a formal allegation to the United Nations against the UK government over its non-compliance with academic freedom.’

    I and others feel that the main threats to academic freedom lie in the coercive nature of some of the structures and frameworks imposed by university managers and government ministers. Prevent is one case. Other curbs are more opaque, such as the ending of tenure and the use of precarious contracts, the priorities of research councils in grant funding (at the urging of government), the REF with its insistance on proving areas of strength, hiring and promotion on the basis of metrics such as h-index and publication in high impact journals – which often select research which confirms existing orthodoxies. And what are we to make of the University of Leicester seeking to weed out its scholars in critical management studies ? I think universities and the DofE have more questions to answer that academic staff or student unions.

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