Today
Wed 22 September 2021

The Government’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will limit, rather than protect, academic freedom, argue Liz Fekete and Liam Shrivastava

The Government is attempting to take the moral high ground over free speech on campus. But the real purpose of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, currently at the committee stage in the House of Commons, is to limit academic freedom and weed out progressive views on campus – particularly, though not exclusively, related to racial justice and the teaching of Britain’s imperial history.

Sir John Hayes, chair of the Common Sense Group of Conservative MPs, has even compared the fight to ban the “wicked ways of the self-appointed thought police” and their “bigoted” views to a contemporary “Battle for Britain”.

His choice of the word “bigoted” is pretty rich, given his support for capital punishment and a ban on abortion, and the fact that the bill, it has been argued, would provide legal protection for hate speech.

The bill builds on the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto pledge to “strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities”. As such, it signals the role the Government expects higher education to play in cementing its cultural revolution from the right – one that revolves around greater acceptance for nationalist and nativist ideas, while asserting a virtue in “colour-blindness”.

Through the proposed legislation, institutional barriers to the expression of racist and bigoted views on campus will, in effect, be removed – alongside the introduction of a new statutory tort for breach of the duty to “actively promote” freedom of speech. Under the bill, powers are to be granted to the university regulator, the Office for Students, to impose sanctions on universities and student unions, including fines in case of breaches.


Government Attacks on Free Speech

Two reports by the influential right-wing think tank Policy Exchange, calling for “viewpoint diversity” in universities, have provided the justification for the bill and the Government’s wider ‘war on woke’.

The methodology used for these reports has been criticised for bias within question-framing and for drawing simplistic conclusions designed to generate ‘clickbait’ headlines. The reports posit a number of claims, including that Brexit-supporting students are victimised and that right-wing lecturers have fallen foul of a structural discrimination that blights their career paths.

Eric Kaufmann, a senior fellow at Policy Exchange, co-authored its report on ‘Academic Freedom in the UK: Protecting Viewpoint Diversity’. In a recent article for the American conservative magazine National Review, he attacked the “progressive authoritarianism” associated with “woke culture”, called on Conservatives to use the law to limit the “institutional autonomy” of elite institutions such as universities, and set out a legislative framework for equalities where political diversity and “viewpoint neutrality” is afforded the same legal protection as “race, gender and other forms of diversity”.

Kaufmann also called on all “freedom-minded allies on the left” to join with those on the right in a struggle to prevent a “woke takeover” and “progressive conformity”. 

But, when it comes to free speech, the Government is crying crocodile tears. Because, unless academic freedom comes dressed-up in in a patriotic, socially-conservative wrapper, it is quite happy for it to be eroded through censorship, bans and legal threats. There are a number of recent examples.

The Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch’s suggested that teachers who use critical race theory, or concepts such as “white privilege”, could face action for breaking the law.

The Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said that the decolonisation of British history – which she compared to Soviet-style censorship – has no place in universities.

The Education Secretary Gavin Williamson instructed school leaders on framing discussions around Israel-Palestine, in a letter which critics claim fails to guarantee the right to free speech and association in relation to Palestine.

Last year’s Department for Education’s guidelines warned schools against using resources from organisations that expressed views “harmful to British society” or a desire to end capitalism. The guidelines were only placed under review following the threat of legal action. As lawyers for the Coalition of Anti-Racist Educators and the Black Educators Alliance argued in a pre-action letter, banning resources from certain political groups is a clear statement of the Secretary of State’s political preferences and limits free speech. Teachers could be prevented from using material from campaign groups including Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion, thereby limiting anti-racist or environmental teaching on crucial social matters. 

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The legal status of another Government challenge to university research has yet to be clarified. It has indicated support for a recommendation by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities to remove funding from university research departments that continue to use the research terms such as “BAME” or “BME” (referring to black, Asian and ethnic minority people) in data collection. This attempt to control the funding of university research, in line with a particular ideological view of how race should be conceptualised, is hardly in line with academic freedom.

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill intends to shift the focus from “protected characteristics” in law – such as age or race – to protecting “beliefs”, which will essentially reverse hard-won civil rights for minority groups. In doing so, the Government will arguably create a harmful culture on campus for racial and sexual minorities.

The phrase “crying crocodile tears” derives from an ancient belief that crocodiles shed tears while consuming their prey. There can be no doubt that, in promoting this bill, it is the civil rights of racial and other minorities and of all progressive groups that are under threat of being devoured.

Liz Fekete is director of the Institute of Race Relations and author of ‘Europe’s Fault Lines: Racism and the Rise of the Right’, published by Verso. Liam Shrivastava is communications officer at the Institute of Race Relations

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