A new report by the Higher Education Policy Institute shines a light for the first time on university debating unions and the speakers they invite onto campus.
The new research by Josh Freeman, published as No Platform: Speaker Events at University Debating Unions (HEPI Report 153), is based on statistical analysis of student events and interviews with student organisers to examine concerns about bias and no-platforming.
The report investigates speaker events at the LSE and Cambridge that received national media attention and uncovers new cases of cancelled or contested events.
The report also exposes the issue of ‘quiet’ no-platforming, the pre-emptive cancelling of events for fear of attracting controversy, which it argues is a more pervasive problem than no-platforming in its traditional form.
Josh Freeman, the author of the report, said:
This report shows there is a pool of keen, thoughtful and motivated students willing to debate tough issues on today’s campuses. Yet these students are shying away from difficult topics and controversial speakers because they fear a backlash.
At the LSE and Cambridge Union, students received abuse and harassment for their part in running speaker events. Cases like these push students towards safer events and away from the most challenging and thought-provoking topics. This ‘quiet’ no-platforming is a clear threat to free expression in UK universities.
The Government should work with universities to bring about a cultural shift in the way speaker events are handled and received. The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is an encouraging start, but the risk of legal action may make students more cautious rather than more adventurous with the speakers they invite. Streamlining the Bill and supporting students will allow the Government to hold universities accountable and encourage students to hold genuinely bold and thought-provoking events.
James Tooley, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham which sponsored the report, said:
What is disturbing from this present study is not so much the problem of no-platforming, but the phenomenon of ‘quiet’ no-platforming. That is, where ‘otherwise suitable speakers’ are not invited, because it is feared the invitation will spark a backlash from peers or the authorities. …
The current paper also puts forward some interesting ideas on changes to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, currently progressing through Parliament. I particularly endorse the emphasis on ‘cutting bureaucracy and giving universities autonomy’. …
For many academics, the focus only on the negative, on the ‘sticks’ of the law, rather than the positive, the ‘carrots’ of the intellectual and social attraction of academic freedom, is wearisome and could in the end be counterproductive. The current paper gives something of an antidote here, counselling against running straight to the regulator when problems arise. It is hopeful in its conclusion too: ‘Free speech is not dead’, it says, even though in some places it may need care and nurturing.
Nick Hillman, the Director of HEPI, said:
Universities should be bastions of free speech because they are full of experts, host millions of keen students and have an infrastructure – such as student unions and debating societies – designed to foster free and fair debate. It is because universities are so important that they have found themselves at the centre of the storm about wokery and cancel culture and at the heart of the so-called ‘free speech crisis’. Even people who rarely visit a university campus understand that what goes on there matters to the whole of society.
Problems are not always as insurmountable as they seem, however. New legal backstops and clear guidance from the Office for Students could provide robust support to the many staff and students who want to host or attend interesting events on issues of genuine importance and debate, whether on geopolitics, the rights of different people or the legacy of empire.
If we respond smartly to the current furore, then we could usher in a new period of free, fair and feisty debate by providing more support to those at risk of harassment simply for trying to protect legal free speech. But in so doing, we must avoid imposing new counter-productive bureaucracy that binds students, staff or institutions in endless red tape.
- The speakers invited by debating societies had a left-wing bias overall, reflecting the wider political views of students. The most left-wing societies were Cardiff Politics Society and UCL Debating Society, the latter of which invited no right-wing speakers. The most right-wing were the LSE Debate Society and the Durham Union.
- The Oxford and Cambridge Unions dominate the field, with Cambridge hosting 195 speakers and Oxford 183, compared to 124 speakers across all other debating unions put together. We could only find evidence for 19 universities having a debating society that hosted outside speakers in the 2021/22 academic year. (The full list is here.)
- ‘Quiet’ no-platforming, where students decide not to invite otherwise suitable speakers to an event because of their views, was more common than reported cases of no-platforming. Speakers ‘quietly’ no-platformed include Alex Salmond, Liam Neeson, Harry Enfield, Tony Blair and Peter Hitchens.
- The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill aims to tackle the problem, but – in its current form – could make it worse as students tend to respond to controversy with more caution rather than more free speech. So the paper concludes:
- the Office for Students should produce clear guidance to help students manage challenging events and to explain the complaints process;
- the Government should streamline the Bill to ensure higher education providers handle most complaints internally, cutting bureaucracy and protecting institutional autonomy; and
- the new tort, which is designed to allow individuals to sue for losses arising from an institution’s failure to protect freedom of speech, should be retained but only as the final stage in a four-step appeals process that begins with effective guidance, followed by internal processes at institutions and then complaints to the Office for Students.
Notes for Editors
- HEPI was founded in 2002 to influence the higher education debate with evidence. We are UK-wide, independent and non-partisan. We are funded by organisations and higher education institutions that wish to support vibrant policy discussions, as well as through our own events. HEPI is a company limited by guarantee and a registered charity. The University of Buckingham kindly provided some financial support for this project. However, full editorial control was retained by HEPI.
- HEPI’s last report on free speech issues is here and a previous HEPI report produced with the University of Buckingham on staff and student wellbeing is available here.
- HEPI is co-hosting a research conference in central London on Thursday, 3 November 2022. For further details, including an agenda and details on how to book a place, see https://bookwhen.com/hepi. Organisations that already support HEPI are entitled to free places.