News round-up: Freedom of Speech Bill continues to disturb and disrupt

The Higher Education Freedom of Speech Bill, and debates surrounding it, have continued to disturb and disrupt the higher education sector this week. Critics have suggested that the bill will have a ‘chilling effect’ by threatening universities and student unions with fines if they fail to comply with the narrow definition of ‘acceptable speech’. Meanwhile, UCU have published a damning report which shines a light on the widespread levels of LGBTQ+ discrimination in higher education today.

New on the CDBU blog:

‘Freedom and its Opposite in Universities’

“It is clear that the government’s rhetoric about academic freedom and free speech is hollow. Yet unless those seeking to defend key freedoms address obstacles to these, situations will keep arising which are ripe for exploitation by politicians. And opportunities to deepen and broaden education and research will be missed.”

Words by Savitri Hensman, Writer and Activist, with a foreword from Dr Rowan Williams, CDBU’s Chair of Trustees

Survey shows widespread LGBT+ discrimination in higher education – UCU, 6/05/21

report published by UCU, exploring the working conditions of LGBT+ staff in higher education, found that homophobic, biphobic  and transphobic discrimination remain widespread in UK universities. The report, ‘Challenging LGBT+ exclusion in UK higher education’, presents findings from a pilot survey carried out by UCU, the University of Sussex, University of Kent, University of Essex, and Glasgow Caledonian University. The study analysed 122 survey responses from LGBT+ members of staff from six different universities across England, Scotland, and Wales. Key findings include:

  • over three-quarters (77 %) of respondents have thought about leaving higher education
  • almost half (47%) have experienced mental health issues
  • more than four in 10 (41) % have experienced burnout
  • three in 10 (30%) have experienced homophobic language
  • 29% said promotion criteria negatively impact LGBT+ people

All university students in England can return for in-person teaching – Independent, 10/05/21

All university students in England will be allowed to return to campus for face-to-face teaching next week, Boris Johnson has confirmed. It comes after some courses have been online for over five months due to the coronavirus pandemic. The prime minister’s announcement means students who have been at home since the Christmas holidays under government guidance will be able to return and resume face-to-face teaching from 17 May. The measures are set to ease in line with the next step of England’s roadmap out of lockdown. Returning students are encouraged to take a test via home or community testing at least one day before they travel back to term-time accommodation

UCU criticises university re-opening exercise – UCU, 10/05/21

UCU has criticised the government’s decision to resume in-person teaching at universities from 17 May saying it makes little sense for staff and students as most lessons will have already finished. The union said it would be better to wait until next term for a wider reopening of campuses as more people will have been vaccinated, instead of using unreliable lateral flow tests to do so now. It also said the government should be providing much more funding to support student and staff wellbeing. UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: ‘The decision to return to in-person teaching on university campuses when classes for the vast majority of students have already finished is a distraction, placing more workload onto burnt out staff. The point of universities is learning and research, not jumping through ridiculous hoops.

The Government is in a mess with its free speech bill – it has already sabotaged its own legal definition – iPaper, 20/05/21

It’s jarring enough that the Government’s new law to protect free speech does nothing to protect free speech. What’s most alarming is that it actively works to undermine it. No.10’s “war on woke”, to give it the tiresome title used by the right-wing press, follows an established pattern. It takes universal values like free speech and then weaponises them for use by one side of the culture war. The progressive side of the cultural battlefield is silenced and the conservative side is legally safeguarded. When the National Trust published a report into the links between colonialism and slavery at its properties, for instance, ministers flew into an extraordinary rage. Culture secretary Oliver Dowden demanded heritage bodies refrain from making statements which were not “consistent with the government’s position” on contested historical subjects and issued a not-so-subtle threat to withdraw funding if they failed to comply. “This is especially important as we enter a challenging Comprehensive Spending Review,” he wrote in a letter, “in which all government spending will rightly be scrutinised”. In universities, the Government takes the opposite approach. It aims to safeguard the rights of academics and visiting speakers against protests from students.

Campus free speech law in England ‘likely to have opposite effect’ – The Guardian, 21/05/21

A controversial bill forcing universities in England to promote free speech has been attacked by freedom of expression campaigners, who say the legislation is more likely to have the opposite effect. A letter to the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, from the leaders of Index on Censorship, English PEN and Article 19 says the government’s plans – including a free speech enforcer with powers to fine universities – “may have the inverse effect of further limiting what is deemed ‘acceptable’ speech on campus and introducing a chilling effect both on the content of what is taught and the scope of academic research exploration”. The three organisations told Williamson they had significant concerns about the scope of the proposals, which would allow speakers to claim compensation if their free speech was curtailed by universities or student unions, and would appoint a “free speech champion” to the Office for Students (OfS), the higher education regulator in England.

University fees to fall, but arts degrees may suffer – The Times, 16/05/21

University tuition fees could be cut from £9,250 to a maximum of £7,500, according to a government consultation which begins next month. The cost of science degrees would be topped up by extra government funding, but critics fear arts and humanities subjects, such as languages, philosophy, theology, history and creative arts, would disappear at many universities. Ministers are keen to switch more students into science, technology, healthcare and technical courses, with the focus on further education colleges. Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, told the Conservative Home website: “The record number of people taking up science and engineering demonstrates that many are already starting to pivot away from dead-end courses that leave young people with nothing but debt.”

Bristol University set to use third-party debt collector against rent strikers – Epigram, 08/05/21

The University of Bristol has announced that they will pass debt collection to private debt collectors in a move to retrieve unpaid rent from those on rent strike. Rent Strike Bristol say standard debt procedure entails the University holding onto debt for 12 months before moving it to a third party. However, in an email sent to students, they said that the debt from 24 October will be passed onto STA International debt collectors, only 7 months after. Students who have not yet paid their instalments of rent have received emails and telephone calls from the university urging them to pay.

How Private Debt Collectors Were Turned on Bristol’s Student Rent Strike – Tribune, 13/05/21

‘Their hand is no longer being forced, so now they feel like they can get away with it. But we’ve come so far that we can’t give up our fight now.’ ‘Stuff like this is galvanising people again, and we will still be withholding our rent until we as a rent strike decide what to do.’ Bristol University says the decision to use private debt collectors is a last resort. A spokesperson said: ‘Sadly, after multiple attempts to retrieve unpaid rent, including warnings about debts eventually being collected we are now reaching that point. This is part of the tenancy agreement all students in halls sign before moving in. ‘We do not make a profit from rent in halls, unlike other landlords, all the money is ploughed back into the residences themselves. We have nearly 30,000 students and 8,000 staff and must think about the future of the University.’

‘Strategic misstep’: arts education cuts risk UK cultural leadership, government told – The Guardian, 12/05/21

The UK’s position as a cultural leader is at risk if proposed 50% cuts to arts subjects at universities go ahead, arts sector leaders have told the government in an open letter opposing the move. The letter – organised by the Contemporary Visual Arts Network and signed by 300 art world figures, including Sonia Boyce and the directors of all four Tate locations – said the plan to halve the amount spent on some arts subjects was a “strategic misstep”. The current plan would affect courses – including music, dance, drama and performing arts; art and design; media studies; and archaeology – that were deemed to not be “strategic priorities” after a consultation by the Office for Students (OfS) and the education secretary, Gavin Williamson. “The current proposal may limit the availability and accessibility of places on arts courses and result in fewer courses being offered,” the letter reads. “This will have a detrimental impact on our ability to retain our world leading position, attract inward investment through our cultural capital and our share of the global art market.”

ART IS ESSENTIAL: An Open Letter to the Secretary of Education – Contemporary Visual Arts Network, 11/05/21

The Government has proposed that courses in price group C1 – covering subjects in music, dance, drama and performing arts; art and design; media studies; and archaeology – are not among its strategic priorities and will be subject to funding reductions. The proposed reduction of £121.40 per student represents a funding cut of 50 percent in the subsidy to these specialist subjects that are expensive to teach. The visual arts sector strongly disagrees with this proposal and furthermore, alongside the London Art School Alliance, opposes the removal of the London weighting. The impact is far-reaching. More than ever, we appreciate the emergency funding that the Government has provided for the cultural sector across the country through the Culture Recovery Fund. This is why we find these policy proposals a strategic misstep and contrary to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport strategy Here for Culture. We urge you to reconsider. Higher Education is a fundamental right of all people in this country. This proposal will detract from one of the UK’s fastest-growing economies. The Creative Industries contributed £116bn in GVA in 2019 and supports 1 in every 16 jobs (DCMS 2019). This success has been built upon the UK’s world leading arts education and its entrepreneurial graduates – 65% of employees in the creative sector have a degree, evidencing the value of the universities and schools of art. An arts education develops high level creative skills along with complex problem solving and critical thinking, areas that the World Economic Forum identified as the top three skills for future jobs.

Mary Beard to fund classics students from under-represented groups – The Guardian, 14/05/21

The academic and broadcaster Mary Beard is to retire from Cambridge University next year and as a parting gift will leave an £80,000 fund to support two classics students from under-represented groups. Despite recent efforts to increase diversity in the classics department, including offering an additional year for candidates with little or no Latin, Beard says the faculty remains “very white” and more needs to be done to attract different kinds of students. The fund will cover the £10,000-a-year living costs of two undergraduates, who will be required to come both from a minority ethnic group and low income background, and will cover the duration of a four-year degree. “It’s a retirement present from me,” said Beard, a classics professor who has taught at Cambridge for almost 40 years. “I am very conscious of what I’ve gained from classics; no one from my family had a university degree. This subject has been my livelihood, it’s given me the opportunity to do lots of things – and it’s paid my mortgage for 40 years!”

UK’s top universities fearful of extra student numbers if A-level grades are high – The Guardian, 15/05/21

Heads of some of the UK’s elite universities fear they may be forced to take thousands of extra students they feel they do not have room for this summer, if teacher-assessed A-levels lead to far more 18-year-olds achieving the grades they need to obtain a place. During last summer’s A-level fiasco, when thousands of students had their A-levels marked up at the last minute, some elite universities accepted up to a third more students than planned because so many met their offer grades. This year, teacher-assessed A-levels are widely expected to result in far more students with top grades again, leaving some universities worrying about how they will cope. Vice-chancellors say they have to take everyone who meets the conditions of their offer, unless they can persuade them – or pay them – to defer their place to next year, when there should be less pressure on accommodation and facilities.

Job prospects vary widely for graduates in England, data shows – The Guardian, 19/05/21

The proportion of students in England who land in graduate-level jobs varies widely between universities and subjects studied, according to data published by the Office for Students (OfS) that is likely to fuel the government’s efforts to restrict entry to “low-quality” courses. Graduates of Imperial College London were the most likely to complete their studies and go on to either a professional occupation or further study, with 92% doing so a year after leaving. Graduates of the Royal College of Music and Oxbridge were close behind. But at the other end of the scale, less than half of degree-holders from several mainstream universities do the same. The University of Bedfordshire had just a third of its graduates in relevant occupations or further study, according to the OfS.

Universities ‘turn blind eye’ to suspicious foreign donations – The Times, 19/05/21

Russell Group universities are being “wilfully ignorant” to the risks of accepting foreign donations, academics are claiming. Analysis of gift acceptance procedures at the elite universities has revealed that they each turn down only four donations or fewer a year. This is despite concerns that prestigious higher education institutions are the “prime targets” of kleptocrats seeking to launder their reputations and cash. A report co-authored by British academics found that seven of the 17 Russell Group universities they assessed had independent gifts committees and published the guidance they used to assess donations. In the other ten, senior leaders and managers approved donations privately. The remaining seven universities in the group did not respond to researchers.