Today the Government will unveil bold legislation to promote free speech at universities.
It includes proposals for a Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion, who will highlight the importance of free speech and investigate when it’s been infringed in higher education, fines for universities that fail to uphold free speech, and the widening and enhancement of academic freedom protections at English institutions.
This is an important step in protecting free speech at universities – places that have arguably become more famous for censorship than student curiosity in recent years. Take last year when Oxford University cancelled Amber Rudd for an event (as part of a “Trailblazer Series for International Women’s Day). That the former home secretary could be “no platformed” was a wake-up call to say the least.
Furthermore, research suggests that the current climate is having an impact on students’ learning experience. Last year Policy Exchange found in its report, titled Academic Freedom in the UK, that only four in 10 leave-supporting students felt comfortable to discuss their Brexiteer beliefs in class (versus nine out of ten for Remain-voting students), along with other examples of people being “stifled by a politically-homogeneous culture”.
The Department of Education has said it wants to stamp out unlawful “silencing” on campuses; in short, its proposal is designed to ensure every student and academic, from Marxists to Brexiteers to otherwise, has an actual “safe space” to discuss their politics.
We're proposing new legal measures to strengthen free speech and academic freedom at universities in England pic.twitter.com/Ybptd7My27
— Department for Education (@educationgovuk) February 16, 2021
It is not the first time the DfE has tried to protect free speech at universities; in July 2020, Gavin Williamson warned “if universities can’t defend free speech, the Government will”, and brought out a policy that required English universities to tackle censorship in order to receive a Government bailout (to help with the financial challenges brought on by the pandemic).
Will the latest legislation do the trick? It should be said, first of all, how terrible it is that we’ve got to the point where institutions need reminding of the importance of free speech, which is central to learning. It does not bode well that the next generation of civil servants, lawyers, doctors and everyone else spends three years in institutions that have normalised groupthink and fear of Amber Rudd.
But here we are – and the legislation should, in theory, stop the problem getting any more out of hand – giving new protections to academics over their right to free speech. Perhaps the most important thing is to ensure the legislation does not become a form of cancel culture in itself – inhibiting university’s decision-making abilities – and it must be carefully applied.
It’s worth looking at how the free speech legislation fits into a wider context, too, in the Government’s unofficial “war on woke”. Although Boris Johnson has been keen to stick out of the culture wars – when he was recently asked if Joe Biden was woke, he looked like he wanted to run a hundred miles away – Munira Mirza, Director of 10’s Policy Unit, is highly engaged on these issues, and we have started to see some powerful rebuttals in the culture wars.
Boris Johnson answers … is Joe Biden woke? pic.twitter.com/RAOKWusEQO
— Sam Coates Sky (@SamCoatesSky) January 20, 2021
Take Liz Truss, who recently attacked “identity politics”, in her recent “Fight for Fairness” speech, and writing for The Mail on Sunday, warned of people “behind pernicious woke culture (who) see everything in terms of societal power structures”. Kemi Badenoch, too, has been incredibly brave – warning of the dangers of Critical Race Theory and its reductive assumptions about people.
This may seem far away from the university debacle, but it shows that the Government is taking the culture wars seriously – and has tools up its sleeve to combat some of the most illiberal ideas in our society masquerading as social justice. Many voters have been delighted to see a fightback – Badenoch won our speech of the year, and Truss was not so far behind, in a sign of how much this matters to Conservative voters.
Even so, the Government must go even further in defending free speech and the Enlightenment values. A lot of the culture wars cannot be “legislated out of”, but are about stating one’s position over and over again – to make others feel safe to do so also.
Indeed, part of the reason we have seen cancel culture accelerate is because people have become scared to stand up to proposals they do not like. Recently, for instance, a Brighton hospital told its midwives to call “breastfeeding” “chestfeeding”, and I counted one Conservative speak out about it. And so the radical agenda continues, without an opposition. Yes the university legislation will help, but we need more voices too.