There are various important roles in English higher education that are either vacant or close to becoming so – for example, in the last few days, we’ve heard that the Chief Executive of the Office for Students will soon stand down and the new Director for Fair Access and Participation (DFAP) is due to take the helm on widening participation in early 2022, so their name must be revealed soon.
A third major vacant role is brand new: the Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom, who will have:
a remit to champion freedom of speech and academic freedom on campus, and responsibility for investigations of infringements of freedom of speech duties in higher education which may result in sanctions or individual redress via a new complaints scheme.
It is a high-profile role and (like the DFAP one) comes with membership of the Office for Students’ Board. The Office for Students’s new draft strategy reminds us that the Government expects the organisation to:
Take more active and visible action to challenge concerning free speech incidents that are reported to it or which it becomes aware of, as well as to share information with providers about best practice for protecting free speech beyond the minimum legal requirements.
As usual, the first incumbent of the new role is likely to be especially important because they will set the tone for the future. But it is not at all clear yet who might fill the role. In the words of the Office for Students’s Chair, Lord Wharton:
If we get the right person, I think it will be a really positive and constructive thing. If we get the wrong person, then clearly there could be some challenges.
Who might do it? There are some things that are probably givens, as far as the Government is concerned – for example:
- they will want someone who is both a doughty defender of free speech and who supports the IHRA (the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of anti-semitism, which Ministers have urged higher education institutions to adopt (and over 200 of which, including 95 universities, have now done so);
- they are likely to favour someone who wants to ensure certain debates are given space, such as those regarding trans issues, given – for example – that the Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, recently tweeted about Kathleen Stock, ‘It is a sad day for freedom of speech … No academic should ever have to fear for their personal safety’; and
- given past ministerial comments (and with an eye to recent election results in the United States), they may want someone who is a critic of Critical Race Theory – last year, one Minister told the House of Commons she regarded ‘the promotion of critical race theory’ as ‘a dangerous trend’.
Given the complexity of the issues – defenders of absolute free speech are few and far between and would be unsuited to the job, given official initiatives like Prevent – the role needs to go to someone who is highly articulate, highly intelligent, nuanced in their approach, experienced with the media and with a (very) thick skin. The fuss a few years ago over the brief appointment of Toby Young, now the head of the Free Speech Union, to the Office for Students’s Board, shows how important it is to get the appointment right in the eyes of the media and outside commentators.
I have been musing on the sort of person it might go. But I stress my thoughts are based on no confidential insights at all. The list below is no more than a starter for 10, akin to the way a bookmaker might compile a lengthy list of runners and riders ranging from those with low odds to those with high odds.
A politician? Perhaps a former Universities Minister (such as Chris Skidmore or Margaret Hodge, who is the Chair of a university council too), or someone with experience in home affairs as well as education (such as Charles Clarke or David Blunkett or Ken Clarke) or another former senior Cabinet Minister with a proven interest in the topic (such as David Davis, who recently introduced a Private Member’s Bill on entitled the Freedom of Speech [Universities] Bill)
An experienced former vice-chancellor? Perhaps one experienced in regulation (such as David Eastwood or Alan Langlands), or someone with broader public policy experience (such as Julia King, who now sits in the House of Lords) or someone who has been outspoken on free speech issues (such as Anthony Seldon) or else someone with senior experience in more than one country (such as Ed Byrne)
An outspoken public figure or journalist? Trevor Phillips (like Charles Clarke a former NUS President) or Michael Crick (who is an experienced university governor at more than one institution)
An academic? Perhaps one who has featured in the news on free speech and academic freedom issues (such as Arif Ahmed, who authored amendments to Cambridge’s Statement on Freedom of Speech, or Matthew Goodwin or Eric Kaufmann or Robert Tombs), or one with a long track record of campaigning on relevant issues (such as Dennis Hayes, the founder and director of Academics For Academic Freedom) or one with a deep understanding of the nuances of public opinion (such as Bobby Duffy of King’s College London)
A current or former think tanker? such as Douglas Murray (author of The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity) or Joanna Williams (author of Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity, who has long been associated with Spiked) or someone else who has been associated with Policy Exchange, which has long pushed the Government to take action on free speech in higher education
I am unlikely to have alighted here on the person who eventually fills the role. Other potential categories exist too, such as lawyers or experienced regulators (though some of those listed above do have legal and regulatory experience). Some of the people I have mentioned would not be interested in it in practice – one person on my list told me they would turn down the job if it were offered to them because they didn’t believe it was necessary.
Although (or perhaps because) the Labour Party have opposed the legislation, a smart, possibly counter-intuitive, move could be to appoint someone not known to be on the right of the political spectrum. As the Chair of the Office for Students is a former Conservative MP while the university world is typically left of centre, this could enable a more consensual and somewhat less confrontational approach in an area that is always likely to be fraught.
Finally, it is worth noting that the appointment may turn out to be more difficult than those of us outside Whitehall realise. Some high-profile public roles are harder to fill than people realise, with fewer applicants. If the terms and conditions are not attractive and the risk of brickbats are high, then the field could be a whole lot smaller than my list might at first imply.