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Mon 6 December 2021

Sam Bright unpicks the evidence, relied on by ministers, for their new clampdown on academic institutions

The Government’s increasingly strict policies on university free speech are only based on a small amount of real-world evidence, it has confessed.

In February, the Department for Education announced that it would be appointing a free speech ‘champion’ with the power to fine universities or students unions that, in its view, wrongly restrict free speech, and order action if staff are sacked or disciplined for their opinions.

At the time, Gavin Williamson’s ministry was criticised for failing to provide any tangible examples to justify its strict approach. As a result, Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Jenny Randerson lodged a written parliamentary question, asking how the Government is ensuring “that policies on higher education and freedom of speech are based on (1) accurate research, and (2) evidence which reflects a balance of information”.

In response, Conservative peer Lord Stephen Parkinson confessed that there has only been “a small number of high-profile reported incidents in which staff or students have been threatened with negative consequences” for their political viewpoints, “including loss of privileges or dismissal, sometimes successfully”.

There is an opinion in Government, Lord Parkinson said, that “free speech and academic freedom on some university campuses is being affected by increasing intolerance of ideas which challenge conventional wisdom, leading to a chilling effect whereby not all students and staff may feel able to express themselves without fear of repercussions”.

As evidence, he pointed to studies undertaken by King’s College London (KCL), the University and College Union (UCU), the Policy Exchange think-tank, and the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

However, these sources do not provide the conclusive evidence that Parkinson claims.

The KCL study opens with the observation that academic free speech has been “politicised” by the Conservative Party and figures on the right of politics.

“Irrespective of whether this is factually correct or not, the long-term political strategy seems to be to force universities to acknowledge that there is an issue and, through that, create (one could argue, ironically, a ‘safe’) space for more open discussion on issues on the right of the political spectrum and, through that, secure long-term political support for right-leaning parties,” it reads.

A few paragraphs later, the KCL report states that free speech incidents –  in which “you could legitimately critique King’s for not upholding its commitment to freedom of expression” – are “rare”, with just six events out of 30,000 falling into this category between 2015 and 2020. This is equivalent to just 0.04% of events held at KCL during this time period.

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As for the so-called “chilling effect” cited by the Government, the evidence is also flimsy. Only 12% of students surveyed by KCL said that they hear about free speech incidents at university ‘fairly’ or ‘very often’, with just a quarter saying that they were anxious about expressing their views openly.

“Our survey showed that students consider freedom of expression to be a highly salient issue, but few have had any direct experience of freedom of expression being inhibited in their own institution,” the report concluded.

What’s more, the overwhelming majority – 63% – of students surveyed said that university officials should have the right to ban people with extreme views from speaking on campus.

Finally – and tellingly – the study states that “there is already a strong policy framework” and that “further regulation in the UK is unlikely to make any difference to the issue and thus will be wholly symbolic”.

Perhaps even more bizarre is Lord Parkinson’s reference to the UCU, given that the free speech champions policy was slammed by the body, when it was announced in February.

“It is extraordinary that in the midst of a global pandemic the Government appears more interested in fighting phantom threats to free speech than taking action to contain the real and present danger which the virus poses to staff and students,” its general secretary Jo Grady said.

In fact, if there is any threat to academic freedoms, it comes from the Government itself, the UCU says: “In reality the biggest threats to academic freedom and free speech come not from staff and students, or from so-called ‘cancel culture’, but from ministers’ own attempts to police what can and cannot be said on campus, and a failure to get to grips with endemic job insecurity.”

Meanwhile, the Joint Committee on Human Rights has cited concerns over barriers to free speech at university. However, it is a parliamentary committee populated by several Conservative members. In addition, the average age of the committee is 70 and, while age is no blockade to wisdom in respect to academic freedom, there is certainly a lack of lived experience about the current situation on university campuses.

As for Policy Exchange, a right-wing think-tank set up by three Conservative MPs, its studies into university free speech have been criticised – with one academic calling the research “completely misleading”.

If ministers were tasked, in an exam question, on proving the merits of the Government’s strict academic free speech policy, one suspects they would be awarded a ‘fail’.

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