Chris Newton: The Government’s Free Speech Bill won’t fix universities if viewpoint diversity isn’t addressed too

21 Sep

Dr Chris Newton is a military historian and a former defence policy adviser in the Conservative Research Department.

As universities start a new academic year, the Government’s Higher Education (Free Speech) Bill is going through Parliament. The bill strengthens and protects university freedom of speech and is desperately needed.

University cancel culture” is not just an American phenomenon (and Peter Boghossian’s recent resignation letter to Portland State University indicates it’s still a major problem there). One needn’t go back far to find examples of academics and students in the UK having their freedom of speech threatened as well.

Just this month, the media reported that the University of Bristol dropped Professor Steven Greer’s module on Islam and the Far East. This is despite Greer being cleared by a five-month investigation into complaints about his alleged views on Islam.

In Scotland, where the bill will not unfortunately apply, Neil Thin, a senior lecturer Edinburgh University who criticised the renaming of David Hume Tower, faced an investigation after students made unsubstantiated accusations against him. While the university dismissed the complaints, Thin has spoken about the “severe psychological and social damage that can be caused by…unnecessary punitive investigations”.

These are just a couple out of a whole litany of cases where academics have been subjected to event cancellations, petitions calling for their dismissal, or witch trial style disciplinary procedures.

Their views aren’t, on the whole, regarded as particularly controversial in the real world. Academics have been denounced for defending Brexit, arguing that British history contains good as well as bad aspects, and for saying that biological sex is scientific fact. These views have been met with cries of “xenophobe”, “racist“, or “transphobe, among other slurs.

Recent research indicates that there is a deeper cultural problem. A 2020 report from Policy Exchange found that 44 per cent of academics surveyed who identified as “fairly right” and 63 per cent of those who were “very right” stated that they worked in a hostile working climate. These concerns seem to be justified as only 54 per cent of academics indicated that they would feel comfortable sitting next to a Leave supporter at lunch.

The Free Speech Bill should at the very least prevent further noplatformings. Some have argued that universities will also have to create bureaucratic structures that will ensure legal compliance. The Free Speech Union will also keep defending its members and reminding universities of their legal obligations.

These are important developments, but Nadhim Zahawi, the new Education Secretary, should consider whether the bill as it stands is still a sticking plaster that only deals with the symptoms and not the root causes of the problem.

As has been pointed out by Policy Exchange and others, universities have been able to enforce an ideological orthodoxy because they are dominated by one side of the political spectrum. The Policy Exchange report found that under 20 per cent of academics voted for right-leaning parties in 2017 and 2019, while 75 per cent voted for either Labour, the Liberal Democrats, or the Greens. For all the preaching about “diversity and inclusion” that goes on in universities, political diversity is very much forgotten.

Fuelling the intolerance is also the growing influence of radicals. The past few years have witnessed the emergence of “critical theories” or “critical social justice”, once a fringe element, as a powerful force on campus, particularly in the humanities and social sciences.

Critical theories” include postcolonialism, critical race theory, and critical gender studies, and are descendants of Marxism and Postmodernism. They believe that Western societies are structurally unequal, and ethnic minorities, women, homosexuals, and transgender people are systemically oppressed.

There is no room for individual agency; power dynamics are structural and pre-determined by group identity. An ideology that believes that those who question their claims regarding systemic oppression are “complicit” in the discrimination is not exactly going to be open to alternative views.

There has been an increasing expectation from university diversity officers that the whole institution should reflect this new orthodoxy. This is reflected in initiatives such as “decolonising the curriculum”, which seems to be more interested in deleting fundamental content than genuinely making courses more diverse.

Leicester University proposed to ditch Geoffrey Chaucer and Beowulf from the English curriculum in favour of more modules about race and sexuality. Exeter University’s library requested that lecturers decolonise their reading lists, “look beyond traditional textbooks”, and embrace “grey literature” such as tweets. Musicologist Professor Paul Harper-Scott has just resigned from Royal Holloway in London due to the “dogmatic” nature of the decolonising agenda.

The new government guidance does prohibit the imposition of political agendas like “decolonising the curriculum” on staff, but there are potential ways around it. One way is to simply hire believers. Many lecturing job adverts now ask for specialists in critical theories, or for a commitment to the “decolonisingagenda.

The Policy Exchange report also indicates that there is potentially some political discrimination in hiring. 37 per cent of academics who voted Remain said they are likely to discriminate against a Brexiteer in job applications. Leavers face an 80 per cent chance of being discriminated against on a four-person panel.

Moreover, half would rank a grant application lower if it came from a right-wing perspective. There is little use of a Free Speech Bill if almost everyone already believes in the same set of ideas. What is needed are measures that will restore viewpoint diversity.

What can be done? Potential options include, first, the Office for Students monitoring recruitment and grant approval practices, as well as providing incentives to ensure fair play and a degree of balance. However, some may be uncomfortable with such a degree of state intervention.

A second approach is to create new higher education institutions explicitly committed to philosophical pluralism. A key problem, however, is that the barriers to entry are exorbitant. The Government could remove some of these barriers, for example allowing small start-up organisations to offer masters courses initially to get themselves established, before offering other degrees later on. It could also, as the Cieo think tank suggested, help set up new “free universities”.

The Free Speech Bill is a positive step in moving universities back in the right direction, but it is only a first step. What we really need is not just a Free Speech Bill, but a Free Speech and Viewpoint Diversity Bill.

Emily Carver: Free speech is in peril at universities. But the Government has gone too far in trying to police the issue.

5 May

Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

The doctrine that “speech is violence” has gone mainstream. The notion is troubling and nonsensical in equal measure, yet it has wormed its way into UK universities, and now sits at the heart of renewed efforts by institutions up and down the country to clamp down on “offensive” speech.

This week it was reported that Edinburgh University has issued speech guidance to its staff on transgender issues. This includes asking lecturers to include their preferred pronouns in emails, wear rainbow lanyards on campuses, refrain from using potentially offensive labels such as “man” or “woman”, and to avoid using such phrases as “all women hate their periods”, which could be deemed to be a “microaggression” to some students.

It’s remarkable that “microaggression” has become part of our lexicon. But this nebulous term, which was coined specifically to describe acts of racism in 1970s America, now seemingly inspires the aforementioned guidance, which will see universities attempt to dictate the parameters of acceptable speech. And Scotland is not a unique case: several other Russell Group universities have also issued similar advice.

Those in favour claim that this measure will protect minorities and foster a more tolerant society – but they fail to acknowledge that the restrictions could backfire. It doesn’t take a seasoned historian to recognise that such aggressive attempts to limit speech may end up breeding a culture of suspicion, rather than one of openness and tolerance (I imagine it is now near impossible at some of our supposedly world-class universities for academics to express their objections to such guidance fear of reputational and professional damage).

Even if most lecturers at Edinburgh University will gladly abide by the rules, guidance such as this should not become the norm. A central tenet of a free society is freedom of expression; those who hold unpopular opinions to express themselves just as much as those whose views fit the du jour, progressive, shibboleth. It is troubling that anyone might feel coerced to put their pronouns in their email signature, or to wear a rainbow lanyard, for fear of ostracisation.

Such attempts to control speech in our universities are symptomatic of a culture that has become increasingly hostile to opinion that challenges certain world views. It’s hard not to see this most recent guidance issued by one of the UK’s top universities as anything other than a concerted effort to further one set of approved ideas over others.

Fundamentally, that lecturers – who last time I checked are paid to teach and encourage critical thinking – should be put in a position where they are afraid to “misspeak” is nothing short of an affront to a liberal democracy and poses a fundamental risk to academic freedom.

The 2019 Conservative manifesto contained a promise to “strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities”. Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, has in recent months substantiated this, with a series of proposals to do just that, including the appointment of a “free speech champion” to investigate potential infringements, such as the wrongful dismissal of academics for political reasons. Further measures include a new pledge to make free speech a condition of being registered as a higher education institution and for being able to access public funding.

While it is of course welcome that the Government intends to support academics who lose their jobs due to political discrimination, attempts to impose further bureaucracy on universities may end up doing very little to remedy the problem.

There is a real danger that overregulation of the education system could lead to a loss of institutional autonomy, and freedom to criticise government policy, which is vitally important if we are to sustain a culture of academic freedom. The Russell Group of leading universities has expressed legitimate concerns over the additional bureaucracy and constraints new regulations may impose, which should not be dismissed.

Practically, as Marc Glendening of the Institute of Economic Affairs has pointed out, the Government may well find itself hamstrung by already existing legislation, rendering top-down attempts to protect freedom of speech futile.

In order to uphold free speech in this country, the Government could start by reviewing the Equality Act 2010, which makes universities subject to its “harassment” provision. This provision is nebulously defined as words and actions that violate a “person’s dignity” and have the effect of “creating an intimidating, hostile, humiliating or offensive environment for that person.”

While (hopefully) few people would wish to create such an environment, these terms, in law, are dangerously vague and are identified by the effect they have, not the intention of the perpetrator. The Education Act 1986 also gives license to universities to ban speakers “likely to express unlawful speech”.

Governments will always be tempted to add more laws to the statute book. Indeed, many politicians see it as their sole raison d’etre – a way to show they’ve made a tangible change. But if this government is serious about restoring free speech in our country, it should start by doing away with is to do away with legislation that is actively curtailing freedom of speech.