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SRHE News on academic freedom and freedom of speech

by Rob Cuthbert

One of the benefits of SRHE membership is exclusive access to the quarterly newsletter, SRHE News, www.srhe.ac.uk/publications/srhe-newsletter

SRHE News typically contains a round-up of recent academic events and conferences, policy developments and new publications, written by editor Rob Cuthbert. To illustrate the contents, here is part of the April 2021 issue which covers Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech.

A global academic freedom index

The Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi), an independent non-profit think tank based in Berlin, has published a report on academic freedom globally, arguing for it to be used to moderate global university rankings. Authors Katrin Kinzelbach, Ilyas Saliba, Janika Spannagel and Robert Quinn have shown all their working and include this map:

“The AFi 2020 includes scores for 175 countries and territories. In this map, the states’ AFi scores are grouped in ranges, with A representing those countries with the highest levels of academic freedom (green on the map) and E representing those with the lowest academic freedom scores (red on the map).”

Free speech in the US

A free speech case on campus reached the US Supreme Court on 8 March 2020, which decided in favour of the student. Chike Uzuegbunam, a former student at Georgia Gwinnett College, had tried while a student to hand out pamphlets sharing his religious views with fellow students. He was stopped twice by campus police, first to be told he could only do that in a designated ‘free speech zone’. When he tried with official permission to do so, he was prevented because other students had objected. The College eventually rescinded its policy on ‘free speech zones’ but the case went to the Supreme Court to prevent it becoming moot, that is not cited as a precedent, since Uzuegbunam had graduated. The Court ruled that he was nevertheless entitled to nominal damages of $1, which was what he had sought. Elizabeth Redden told the story for insidehighered.com on 9 March 2021.

Is debate under threat on UK campuses?

Jim Dickinson asked the question in his Wonkhe blog on 20 January 2021. Unlike the culture warriors, he referred to a lot of evidence suggesting the answer is not what most people are encouraged to think. He pointed out that outgoing OfS chair Michael Barber, about to give a speech on this, was actually sitting on a lot of relevant evidence, held but not published by the OfS, which would give the lie to the current narrative. MP David Davis introduced a private member’s Bill in the House of Commons on 21 January 2021 because, according to David Williamson in the Daily Express on 17 January 2021, he “wants to stop “cancel culture” taking root in centres of higher education and is alarmed at resistance to hearing “uncomfortable opinions”.” Well, no doubt no-one had thought to legislate on that since the 1980s, but there is quite a lot of advice and guidance about.

Our radical student-led proposals will secure and champion campus free speech

There was a well-argued blog from three SU Presidents – Patrick O’Donnell (York), Lizzie Rodulson (Surrey) and Kwame Asamoah Kwarteng (Manchester) –  for Wonkhe on 1 February 2021: “our new report recommends the creation of a code for students’ unions which establishes and reinforces important principles on campus of political diversity and freedom of expression. We propose to substantially adopt widely used principles within the free speech policy statement produced by the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago to send a clear signal – that our campuses and unions are open for debate.” The NUS VP for HE, Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, and two more SU presidents –  Sunday Blake (Exeter) and Meg Price (Worcester) – followed up on WonkHE on the same day with an equally persuasive piece saying that the real free speech problem was the imbalance between the proportion of high-profile speakers visiting Russell Group universities rather than others: “we’d like to see a new focus – where universities, sector agencies and the government work together with students’ unions, guilds and associations in all types of university to attract speakers, put on events, generate debate and expose students to new ideas, thinking, policy and people.”

How should the OfS regulate the exercise of academic freedom?

Gavin Williamson announced his free speech initiative with a column in The Telegraph, where else, on 16 February 2021: ‘Turning the tide on cancel culture will start with universities respecting free thought’. Williamson wrote to all universities on 16 February 2021: “The current legal framework imposes on those concerned in the governance of providers a legal duty to take reasonably practicable steps to ensure free speech within the law is secured … A growing number of reports of concerns in relation to freedom of speech on campus, however, suggest that this duty is not being fully complied with …”. The White Paper, running to no less than 42 pages, was published on 17 February 2021.

Evan Smith (Flinders) blogged for HEPI on 16 February 2021 about the history of previous such initiatives. The popular opinion was probably that articulated by Mick Fletcher (independent) in West Country Bylines on 15 February 2021: “You could hardly make it up.  At the same time as government plans to appoint a ‘free speech tsar’ to stop students cancelling controversial speakers it also intends to summon heritage groups to be told by a minister what they can and cannot say about British history. It’s ludicrous but at the same time deeply sinister.” Andrew Whiting (Birmingham City) reported on his research into the Prevent Duty placed on universities, on the LSE Impact Blog on 16 February 2021, which raises “serious questions about necessity and proportionality”.

Smita Jamdar, Head of Education at Shakespeare Martineau, offered guidance on the Secretary of State’s guidance to OfS on 11 February 2021: “this is in our view bad guidance: bad because of the very great problems entailed in implementing it and bad because producing guidance that cannot really be implemented and so must ultimately be withdrawn or modified undermines public trust and confidence in the authority of the office of Secretary of State. … upholding academic freedom is already part of the public interest governance principles and so where there is evidence of a provider’s governing body failing to take appropriate steps, the OfS could treat that as a breach of the registration conditions relating to management and governance. However, that is very different to adjudicating on individual cases and disputes in the way that the Secretary of State appears to want. Finally, it is notable and alarming to recall that when the institutional autonomy provisions were introduced by way of amendment into HERA, they were designed to protect institutions from excessive interference by politicians and regulators. Interestingly they are being used here, on the curious and questionable basis that the government believes institutions need protection from their own autonomy, to justify a potentially significant erosion of autonomy by those very politicians and regulators.”

Hugo Rifkind of The Times was also unconvinced, in his 16 February 2021 tweets: “Williamson’s free speech thing is a mess … if you’re saying unis must preserve challenging speech while also being against re-examining history while ALSO having insisted only 3m ago that all unis adopt the IHRA definition on antisemitism, then I think you need to be quite deft on your feet in explaining wtf is going on and what exactly you think about everything, with reference to what everybody else does, too.” Political commentator Ian Dunt blogged for politics.co.uk on 17 February 2021 that the proposals were ‘a Trojan horse for authoritarianism’: “The problems with the plans are as follows: They are cynical, nonsensical, internally contradictory, functionally implausible and work to perpetuate the exact phenomenon which they claim to undermine.” LSE student Jason S Reed wrote in The Independent on 16 February 2021 ‘The government’s obsession with provoking culture wars is embarrassing – and I say that as a Tory student’. However Arif Ahmed (Cambridge), blogging for HEPI on 17 February 2021, gave a measured welcome: “So these proposals give valuable support to principles that everyone ought to defend. Of course in practice everything will depend on whether the regulator will use these powers impartially and with vigour. But that is true when the state gives any powers to an independent regulator of anything. Still, it is clear to me that in this case doing so addresses a real problem, and does it in more or less the right way.”  

There were constructive comments from Alison Scott-Baumann (SoAS) in The Guardian on 17 February 2021: “In Freedom of Speech in Universities: Islam, Charities and Counter-Terrorism, my book with Simon Perfect, I recommend two simple principles for building what we call a “community of inquiry” – a space where difficult issues can be discussed. First it’s necessary to accept bravely the need to debate and disagree upon matters of urgent importance to young people. Difficult, even intractable, issues such as climate change, environmental disasters, migration, race, gender and identity and a failed economic model need to be discussed. But they are dynamite. So, secondly, in order to defuse potential flash points, we recommend adoption of “procedural values” – by which I mean an etiquette of argument that we all say we adhere to but rarely do: active listening, distinguishing between the person and their arguments, and settling upon some sort of outcome that can be achieved in the real world. These need to be agreed upon, with the backing of university authorities and union representatives, and closely monitored. There needs to be a general compact that, in any forum designated as a “community of inquiry”, these procedures apply – and that people will not be targeted outside them for what they say inside, so long as they have also observed the same principles.”

Jack Harvey (Coventry University SU) had perhaps the most thoughtful piece of all, for WonkHE on 19 February 2021, analysing the nuances of respect and tolerance for other people’s views. Bahram Bekhradnia, HEPI President, made a welcome return to the fray with his HEPI blog on 18 March, in coruscating form: “This is a rushed and unnecessary White Paper, intellectually flimsy, badly thought out and poorly argued with little evidence to support its conclusions. It is full of typos … its inconsistent – Anglo-American – spelling betrays the influence on its thinking, if not its drafting, of the American far right. … if indeed there is a nut to be cracked, it certainly does not need this sledgehammer with which to crack it.”

After Michele Donelan’s article in The Sunday Telegraph on 28 February 2021, Jim Dickinson of WonkHE was at the end of his tether on 28 February 2021, and SRHE member Julian Crockford had clearly lost all patience in his WonkHE blog on 1 March 2021. Jonathan Simons of Public First tweeted: “Front page of the Tel: universities are censoring history by only telling a partial story. Later in the Tel: the National Trust should be investigated because it wants to tell the whole story of history. Pick a ******** lane, guys”. Anna Fazackerley in The Guardian on 27 February gave chapter and verse on the ‘research’ that Gavin Williamson had relied on for his policy paper, and Policy Exchange suffered further damage when its retrospective and would-be secret corrections were exposed. The Policy Exchange paper had conducted a survey based on the alleged ‘no-platforming’ of Germaine Greer – who had in fact spoken at an event organised at Cardiff University, a fact ignored in the original but retrospectively corrected by a new footnote after the original had been cited in the government policy paper. Adam Bychawski wrote for OpenDemocracy on 19 February 2021 that: “British government proposals for strengthening free speech at universities cite an American anti-LGBT ‘hate group’ and a British ‘dark money’-funded think tank that has recommended no-platforming Extinction Rebellion.”

David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson interpreted the policy paper as a complete breakdown of trust and confidence by politicians in the HE sector, in their 16 February 2021 blog for WonkHE.

Rob Cuthbert is the editor of SRHE News and Blog, emeritus professor of higher education management, Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and Fellow of SRHE. He is an independent academic consultant whose previous roles include deputy vice-chancellor at the University of the West of England, editor of Higher Education Review, Chair of the Society for Research into Higher Education, and government policy adviser and consultant in the UK/Europe, North America, Africa, and China. He is current chair of the SRHE Publications Committee.