News round-up: Free speech debate intensifies

The “free-speech debate” has intensified after the government announced it would introduce a ‘Free Speech Champion’ for higher education who will have the powers to fine universities or student unions that restrict free speech. The announcement has been met with criticism, with some suggesting it infringes on university autonomy and stokes so-called ‘culture wars’ on campuses.

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Government to appoint ‘free-speech champion’ for English universities – The Guardian, 14/02/21

The government is to appoint a “free-speech champion” and warn heritage bodies against taking significant steps in reevaluating British history, as part of an intensification of its culture war agenda. In a sign that ministers believe that a battle against “woke” culture plays well with voters, the Department for Education will appoint a “free-speech champion” for higher education, with changes to the law to guarantee the preservation of free speech in universities.

  • Read the government proposal here.

Proposed free speech law will make English universities liable for breaches – The Guardian, 16/02/21

The government is to introduce legislation that will enable academics, students or visiting speakers who are no-platformed to sue universities for compensation where they feel they have suffered because of free speech infringements. The proposal is one of a range of legal measures put forward by the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, as part of the government’s manifesto commitment to protect free speech and academic freedom in universities in England. However, critics warned the legislation will be fraught with difficulties and fiercely opposed by many, including the University and College Union, which accused the government of “fighting phantom threats to free speech” rather than addressing the Covid crisis in higher education.

Plan for campus free speech post prompts autonomy warning – BBC News, 17/02/21

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, the National Union of Students vice-president for higher education, said: “Students’ unions are committed to freedom of expression and are the very home of rigorous debate and new ideas. There is no evidence of a freedom of expression crisis on campus, and students’ unions are constantly taking positive steps to help facilitate the thousands of events that take place each year.” Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “In reality the biggest threats to academic freedom and free speech come not from staff and students, nor from so-called ‘cancel culture’, but from ministers’ own attempts to police what can and cannot be said on campus. A failure to get to grips with the endemic job insecurity and managerialist approaches which mean academics are less able to speak truth to power” were also a barrier to free speech.”

Mental health: more support needed for postgraduate students – The Guardian, 16/02/21

The mental health of postgraduate students is starting to receive the attention it needs. While undergraduate wellbeing is often in the limelight, postgrads are six times more likely to experience depression and anxiety than the general population, according to global research into 2,279 mostly PhD candidates. But universities are ramping up support that can make students more resilient, while mental wellbeing is also associated with superior productivity. Coronavirus has been the catalyst. More than 50% of students think their mental health has suffered since the pandemic struck, according to a survey from the National Union of Students.

Protests as gender studies chief Alison Kerr replaced at St Andrews University – The Times, 15/02/21

Hundreds of students and academics from around the world have expressed outrage after St Andrews University refused to renew the contract of the female head of its Institute for Gender Studies. More than 1,000 students and academics have signed a petition condemning the decision by St Andrews to part company with Alison Kerr. They say that Kerr, an American philosopher who is director of the institute, is crucial to the department and its credibility.

UK university students wasted £1bn in a year on empty accommodation – The Guardian, 17/02/21

University students have wasted nearly £1bn on empty rooms in flat shares and halls of residence that they have been unable to use because of coronavirus restrictions this academic year, according to a new estimate. The average student has so far paid £1,621 in rent for empty rooms for which they have not received a refund, according to an annual survey of 1,300 university students by money advice website Save the Student. Two in five (43%) respondents said they had spent under three months on campus, while nearly half (46%) would have made different decisions about where to live had they understood the likely impact of the pandemic on their education. One in three plan to ask their landlords for a break clause next year to give them more flexibility.

Half of BAME students harassed at Glasgow University, report shows – The Guardian, 17/02/21

A report into racism at the University of Glasgow has found half of black and minority ethnic students surveyed have been harassed more than twice since beginning their studies. The university’s vice-chancellor, Prof Sir Anton Muscatelli, apologised “unreservedly” to staff and students who have experienced racism on campus. The university’s own review, prompted by the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s 2019 inquiry into racism on UK campuses, found half of all BAME students surveyed had been harassed between two and five times since beginning their studies. One in 20 students reported more than 20 separate incidents of harassment, while more than a quarter of BAME students who took part agreed the university had “a serious problem with racism”. According to the equality watchdog’s student survey two years ago, 29% of black students and 27% of Asian students had experienced racial harassment on campus.

Student essay mills have boomed during the pandemic – but banning them won’t solve the problem – The Telegraph, 18/02/21

With her essay deadline closing in, Rosie* knew that paying hundreds of pounds for a stranger to write her Master’s assignment was a dangerous gamble. An ‘essay mill’ soon returned a script riddled with errors, so she requested a refund. Then her troubles began. The online writing company threatened to report her to university authorities, meaning almost certain expulsion, unless she paid £300. She paid it, then came another £300 demand. What started as an attempt to cheat had become a costly web of blackmail.  Essay mills have boomed during the coronavirus pandemic as degree courses have shifted online, with nearly 1,000 estimated to be in operation in the UK, up from 881 in October, and up to one in seven students globally thought to use them.

The international students going hungry in the UK – Channel 4 News, 10/02/21

They come for the prestige of a British university experience and pay upwards of £10,000 for the privilege. But with no work available to them, no access to benefits and little support from the universities, the Covid crisis has left huge numbers of international students queueing up for food banks, crammed into terrible accommodation and feeling abandoned. Channel 4 News producer Shaheen Sattar has been following the plight of the students, and talks about her very personal reasons for investigating this shocking story.

PhD students protest against UKRI by boycotting Researchfish – Research Professional News, 08/02/21

PhD students frustrated by the lack of support from the UK’s national research funding agency during the pandemic are boycotting the system used for tracking research outputs, Researchfish. UK Research and Innovation has been facing a growing backlash from the postgraduate community after it told PhD students to try and adapt their projects to complete their research within the original timelines. To date, UKRI has allocated more than £60 million to support extensions for final-year students, and for students who found it “most difficult to adjust their project and training plan”. But several PhD students have said the funder should provide blanket extensions to all affected students. In a growing sign of frustration, several PhD students have now written to the funder announcing their intention to boycott Researchfish, as well as using the hashtag #BoycottResearchFish on Twitter.

Students Are In Financial Crisis. Who Will Save Their Future? – Refinery29, 08/02/21

In 2008 we bailed out the banks. We now face the biggest financial crisis in a generation, with record youth unemployment. Who will bail out young people? R29 and Vice are joining the NUS to call for all students to be offered rent rebates and asking the government to bring back maintenance grants for students from low income backgrounds. Going to university in Britain is expensive. In fact it’s more expensive than it’s ever been. This can be traced back to 2008 when, in the wake of a global financial crash, tuition fees were trebled and 2015 when, as Britain recovered from said financial crash, maintenance grants for students from low income backgrounds were scrapped by then Chancellor George Osborne. Today’s students pay up to £9,250 a year in tuition fees alone and then have to contend with the cost of living – namely rent and food – on top of that. This means that the average student faces the prospect of graduating with debts of £50,800. 

Universities need to wise up – or risk being consigned to history – The Guardian, 13/02/21

“In the past, people came to the information, which was stored at the university. In the future, the information will come to the people, wherever they are. What then is the role of the university? Will it be more than a collection of remaining physical functions, such as the science laboratory and the football team? Will the impact of electronics on the university be like that of printing on the medieval cathedral, ending its central role in information transfer? Have we reached the end of the line of a model that goes back to Nineveh, more than 2,500 years ago? Can we self‐reform the university, or must things get much worse first?”

Battle looms as Oxford college prepares to topple Cecil Rhodes statue – The Times, 07/02/21

Oxford’s Cecil Rhodes statue, which has become a symbol of memorials linked to slavery and Britain’s colonial past, is set to be removed by the summer and placed in a museum, though a number of dons are determined to block the move. The clash will be the first big test case in the “culture wars” over scores of statues, memorials and buildings, many in schools and universities, that campaigners want to topple or rename in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests.

University students keen to get jobs in nursing – The Times, 18/02/21

Students are flocking to “safe” careers, with the pandemic driving tens of thousands more to apply for nursing, medicine and engineering courses. More than 60,000 people applied to study nursing this academic year, an increase of a third on the previous year, according to the university admissions service UCAS. Applications also increased for medicine and dentistry, from 103,910 to 124,160, and for engineering, from 148,450 to 154,970. The numbers for teaching and architecture are also up. Languages, history, philosophy and classics were in less demand than previously, suggesting that students were looking for secure career paths. Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said: “We could very well see these trends maintained for a while. We are presumably headed for a Covid-linked recession,

Mixed Media: What Universities Need to Know About Journalism – HEPI, 18/02/21

In a new report from the Higher Education Policy Institute, the former Education Editor of The Times, Rosemary Bennett, reveals there were over 7,000 stories about universities in the leading national daily and Sunday newspapers in 2020 and explains why higher education is receiving so much more media coverage than in the past. The paper, Mixed Media: what universities need to know about journalists so they can get a better press, includes a Foreword by Professor Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Sussex.

Universities see 40% drop in number of EU applicants following Brexit – New European, 18/02/21

UCAS reported a 26,010 drop in the numbers of students from the European Union looking to study here this September. It is a 40% drop and UCAS reports it reflected the uncertainty surrounding the UK’s departure from the EU as the government sealed a deal at the eleventh hour. The numbers are likely to have been impacted by the removal of tuition fee loan and grant support for European students, changes to post-study work rights, and the removal of ‘home’ status for fees charged to those in the EU.

Why universities are key to tackling inequality – Nature, 16/02/21

How can universities increase social mobility? What can they do to reduce inequality? Many countries are aiming to boost the proportions of their populations that receive a university education. But with a revolution in online learning under way as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, some governments, prompted by influential thinkers, will be questioning whether the present model of university education should survive once near-normality returns.