Freedom and its opposite in universities

Words by Savitri Hensman, Writer and Activist.

Foreword by Dr Rowan Williams, CDBU Chair of Trustees:

“Any proposed changes in the law need to be scrutinised carefully to make sure that they address a clear and substantial gap in existing provision; they should never be cosmetic exercises aimed at the electorate, nor should they be arbitrary flexing of the state’s muscles.  So much is surely obvious to anyone with a sense of what the law is for.

This is why the legislation on ‘academic freedom’ in universities announced in the Queen’s Speech is particularly in need of critical examination. Savi Hensman’s trenchant discussion poses the simple questions: ‘What specific gap in existing legislation is supposed to be rectified by these proposals? And is the supposed crisis around academic free speech anything like the way it has been represented in some of the media?’

So where exactly is the crisis that makes new legislation imperative? We have laws protecting freedom of speech, with the appropriate adjustments for speech that incites hatred or violence.  We have in universities a tradition of intense and sometimes polemical debate – which can indeed boil over into rancorous, hurtful, unjust rhetoric, the kind of thing that needs a cultural rather than a legal transformation to temper it.  At the moment we are, most of us, well aware of the complexities of securing a better balance in our curricula and including a range of historically suppressed voices and perspectives; it is a matter not of denying our history but of enlarging our sense of its complexity.  And while much has been made of a small number of incidents where prominent and influential speakers have had invitations withdrawn because of protests, we have to ask whether it is the heavily mythologised ‘cancel culture’ that constitutes the greatest threat to academic liberty at the moment.  

Savi, along with many others, lays out the grounds for thinking that this is indeed not where the real problem lies.  The overwhelming reason for academics losing their jobs these days is not that they espouse unfashionably conservative views but that they have come into conflict with managerial philosophies which ignore their professional skills, adjudicate the economic worth of their research to the institution, and undermine the security of their employment conditions (most recently, the announced cuts to a popular and highly rated religious studies department in the University of Chester have brought these issues home).  These philosophies are themselves largely the result of earlier stages of governmental interference and hostility to professional self-regulation.

Vague gesture politics around imagined culture wars may be all very well as part of a rather blunt-edged debating strategy; but this becomes something more sinister when enshrined in law.  To use an image that has often come up in relation to ‘gestural’ legislation, there is not a lot of point in pouring water into the garden next door when your kitchen is on fire.  Savi’s analysis suggests that at the moment our government’s hosepipes are firmly directed at next door’s shrubberies, and their eyes firmly fixed on the electoral rewards of a largely manufactured drama.”

Freedom and its opposite in universities 

The UK government has announced a Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which will supposedly protect free speech and academic freedom in English universities. Critics had earlier pointed out flaws in proposals but this went unheeded. It swiftly emerged that even ministers were confused about the implications, while organisations specialising in freedom of expression voiced grave concerns.  

Other new measures also increase state control. The most extreme is a policing bill which would severely limit freedom of expression and of assembly for students and staff, along with everyone else in society who might protest against the actions of the powerful.

The planned measures would stoke “culture wars”, which may boost politicians’ popularity at the expense of universities and minorities already hit by the pandemic.  

There are genuine problems around academic freedom and freedom of expression, if not on the scale sometimes claimed. However the government’s plans do not address key causes. And, while a few of the people feeling unfairly silenced may find such measures helpful, overall they are likely to deepen divisions. It is worth exploring alternatives which combine compassion with truth-seeking and might actually work. 

Tightening the reins on universities in England

Tensions between universities and the government over freedom have been in the news in recent months. The ‘Prevent’ duty, aimed at reducing terrorism and ‘extremism’ but often vague about what was banned and repressive in its effects, had already been a source of friction. 

There had been much controversy over a definition of antisemitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which many felt could silence critics of Israel and be harmful to Jewish people by not clearly enough distinguishing between them and the actions of that state. However the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, had threatened universities which did not adopt this. After a report warned of “potentially deleterious effects on free speech, such as instigating a culture of fear or self-silencing on teaching or research or classroom discussion of contentious topics”, in February the academic board of University College London urged UCL to reject the IHRA definition. 

Concerns about direct political interference in the running of universities was stoked when a Conservative peer, James Wharton, who had managed Boris Johnson’s party leadership campaign, was appointed as chairman of the Office for Students (OfS). He did not resign the party whip: even the pretence of independence among public officials was being abandoned.

Williamson wrote that every student “has a right to expect a minimum standard of education that is likely to improve their prospects in life.” He urged the OfS to take action against “providers who do not demonstrate high quality and robust outcomes.” Commercial pressures already get in the way of academic freedom. But this would make it possible for the state to exert more direct control, especially if lecturers taught critically about government policy or on subjects important for society which enriched students’ lives but did not lead to jobs in sectors such as banking.

On 16 February, the education secretary revealed the proposals on “free speech at universities”. Some critics questioned his reliance on a right-wing think-tank report which drummed up media publicity over an event which never actually happened

The paper admitted that there were already restrictions imposed by equality and other law and government policy, while not making it clear how staff and student leaders should steer their way through various frameworks pulling them in different directions. 

I work in a university, though not as a manager or academic, and sympathise with those who would have to decide between conflicting requirements. For example, suppose a lecturer vocally opposed masks, social distancing and vaccination. What if freedom to influence students to ignore restrictions interfered with the right to life of security guards or catering workers with whom they came in contact and an employer’s duty of care?

Or what if a student society booked a speaker who might potentially promote hatred or even “extremist views that risk drawing people into terrorism”? Might an institution or student union be fined and publicly vilified whether it let an event go ahead or not? The UK government might win some approving media headlines by heaping fuel on the fire if a university faced a dilemma of this kind in future – but at what cost?

On top of this, paving the way for further tinkering in institutions’ internal discussions, universities were warned not to seek to impose “a political or ideological viewpoint upon the teaching, research or other activities of individual academics”, including that of “decolonising the curriculum”. This refers to a push for work arising from Africa, Asia and Latin America and people of colour elsewhere to be taken seriously, along with that from the Western ‘mainstream’. Sometimes it is seen as part of a wider drive, for instance to include more working class voices. 

In the House of Commons, universities minister Michelle Donelan denounced Durham University Student Union for seeking to abide by Charity Commission guidance on external speakers, which had been shaped in part by her predecessor. She stated that “no university should ever grant a student union any authority or role in vetting, limiting or otherwise overseeing which external speakers may be invited to speak on campus, or under what circumstances they may do so” and warned that her officials had “asked the Office for Students, the independent regulator, to investigate this matter and have also contacted the Vice Chancellor of the university to express my concerns.” In this surreal situation, universities and student leaders risk being shamed and punished even for trying to comply with what the state requires. 

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.

Academic freedom, free speech and obstacles in higher education

Academic freedom was defined in 1997 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation as “the right, without constriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching and discussion, freedom in carrying out research and disseminating and publishing the results thereof, freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work, freedom from institutional censorship and freedom to participate in professional or representative academic bodies.” 

With it went the responsibility “to respect the academic freedom of other members of the academic community and to ensure the fair discussion of contrary views. Academic freedom carries with it the duty to use that freedom in a manner consistent with the scholarly obligation to base research on an honest search for truth.”

The definition in the Bill is far narrower. This may leave staff (especially those with less seniority or status), and indeed institutions, more vulnerable to “untoward political pressures” (to quote the UNESCO document).

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” 

Freedom of speech matters for students too. A 2019 King’s College London report, after students were unfairly treated in connection with a protest on Israel and separate visit to Bush House by the Queen, suggested that “The right to free speech and protest are enshrined in Articles 10 and 11 of the Human Rights Act. The Education Act 1986 places a legal duty on universities to take ‘reasonably practicable’ steps to ensure freedom of speech within the law. Freedom of speech and protest are closely linked, free speech would mean nothing if there was no right to make your views known.” 

Some of the constraints on freedoms are linked to flaws in systems, affecting people with a range of opinions and research or teaching interests. I think key problems include a combination of an older authoritarian culture, in which colleagues and students could find themselves sidelined if they disagreed with senior staff, and a newer emphasis on ‘business’ principles, so that commercial pressures count more. Employment precarity – so that many staff are unsure if they will still have jobs in the university in a couple of years and students may be unsure they will have a job at all – raises the stakes. 

Those in less secure positions may think twice before disagreeing with someone perceived as powerful in their institution, profession or field of study. Students too may wield some power, in an era when Twitter-storms may damage someone’s reputation and teachers can be downrated with a few strokes of the keyboard.

Also teaching and research in fields which do not bring in much money to institutions risk being cut. Recently much has been written about Katalin Karikó’s groundbreaking scientific work, which led to the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Yet this was nearly halted when she worked in a US university in the 1990s, because it did not attract funding: She was demoted because she would not switch focus. Luckily a colleague supported her. Sadly, similar obstacles can occur in the UK.

Wealthy donors and regimes in which universities have opened campuses, or from which many students originate, may exert pressure, along with British leaders. The human tendency to conform may further limit what people say, teach or study. Also in universities, as in wider society, many do not greatly value human rights unless these benefit people with beliefs similar to theirs. This includes some people concerned about social justice, who may believe that views or lines of inquiry which might promote inequality should be suppressed. 

Corey Stoughton, a human rights lawyer, has argued that, while there are limits (for instance covering hate speech) and words can be harmful, “shutting down speech rarely silences the relevant message and often makes it stronger.” 

Such arguments deserve to be taken seriously, especially at a time when civil liberties are under threat. And opportunities may be missed if those who care about equality fail to develop the skills in university settings, in conversation with others who may often be naïve rather than hostile, to argue their cause convincingly. This may leave them unable, in the world outside college walls, to make a persuasive case for justice and peace. 

What can be done?

Government attempts to increase interference in universities’ internal affairs should be resisted, especially when linked to attempts to “divide and rule” those facing different kinds of disadvantage. Staff, students and wider communities may wish to join in discussing the complexities of defending freedoms, amidst tricky judgment calls (for instance when maverick views might slide into intellectual sloppiness). 

The philosopher Neil Van Leeuwen has suggested distinguishing between two types of “safe space”. “Let’s call the first kind of place a ‘safe-being space.’ This is where one can exist without risk of feeling demeaned. The second kind can be called a ‘safe-talking space,’ where one can express ideas without recrimination.” This is not absolute and may still result in dilemmas but may nonetheless be useful.

In practice, a ‘safe-being space’ may require some measure of tolerance and forgiveness for everyone in it to feel truly safe. And a ‘safe-talking space’ may need to foster respect for women, minorities and working class people if they are to feel confident in sharing views – and be heard when they do. Nevertheless it may be worth looking more at ways of using different physical and online spaces within an organisation or network to meet different needs. Experiences of community-building in other settings may also be relevant.

The government’s plans for, and threats against, universities and those who work or study there undermine important freedoms. Those wishing to defend these may need to work together more effectively if key rights and values are to be defended, in higher education and wider society.

This blog has been adapted from ‘Freedom and its Opposite in Universities and Beyond’, originally published by Ekklesia.