There is a popular narrative that free speech is under threat in universities – 52% of British adults think so, according to a 2019 YouGov poll. The UK government thinks so too, and over the last few years has made some unprecedented interventions into higher education to sort it out – including empowering the Office for Students (OfS), the university regulator, to sanction universities deemed to be failing to uphold free speech. Now Gavin Williamson, the secretary of state for education, wants to go further, installing a “free speech and academic champion” on the OfS board to investigate alleged incidents of censorship. He will also make universities’ registration with the OfS conditional on how well they are upholding free speech, and extend the current legal requirement on universities to uphold free speech to cover students’ unions as well.
At first sight this may seem a good set of ideas. First, however, there’s the question of whether they conflict with, or even replicate existing legal requirements on universities – an issue raised by the ombudsman of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education.
Beyond that, though, there’s reason to believe that these proposals are more about appealing to voters and capitalising on the moral panic about universities than actually helping them to protect free speech. The government doesn’t seem to trust anyone on campus, staff or student; they want to be in charge of what good speech is and what bad speech is and they also want us to believe that by policing and enforcing free speech (the good free speech that they will define) they can resolve this problem.
At this point I think we need to ask two questions: first, do they really want to solve the problem? And, second, is the problem what they say it is?
On the first question there’s plenty of evidence to show that, if there is a threat to free speech today, it’s as much from the government as from students. The Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) conducted an inquiry into free speech in universities in 2018 and concluded that there is no major crisis of free speech on campus. This makes sense when we look at the data: no-platforming is considered to be rife yet the numbers don’t bear this out – after all, according to the OfS, out of 62,094 requests by students for external speaker events in English universities in 2017-18, only 53 were rejected by the student union or the university authorities. Despite the government’s narrative, there is a huge amount of debate on controversial issues going on in higher education.
However the JCHR also rightly concluded that some issues do need addressing. One such is the role of the Charity Commission that has oversight over students’ unions – because they are in fact charities. The JCHR instructed the Charity Commission to desist from its heavy-handed manner of monitoring students’ union activities which was actively discouraging the unions from inviting controversial speakers. My recent research has shown that Prevent, the UK counter-terror surveillance operation, is another example of government-led intervention on campuses that is having a chilling effect on open discussion.
This leads to my second question: is the problem what the government says it is? I think not, given that it is very unlikely to remove the two barriers to free speech that it has itself put up (the Charity Commission and Prevent). That suggests it is not really invested in solving the problem. In fact, it might be quite a useful situation for the government, as it can continue to interfere in higher education governance and harangue universities.
So what’s to be done, if a “free speech champion” isn’t the solution? The answer is ready to hand, easy to grasp, but difficult to follow through. Yet the alternative – inaction in a society that is failing so many – is much worse. Everything I’ve described so far is about risk aversion: the government not wanting to risk hearing views it doesn’t agree with; students not wanting to risk offending vulnerable minorities and universities not wanting to risk upsetting government. We can get out of this by deciding to pay attention to each other and accepting the shared risk of causing offence, being ignored and being proved wrong.
In Freedom of Speech in Universities: Islam, Charities and Counter-Terrorism, my book with Simon Perfect, I recommend two simple principles for building what we call a “community of inquiry” – a space where difficult issues can be discussed. First it’s necessary to accept bravely the need to debate and disagree upon matters of urgent importance to young people. Difficult, even intractable, issues such as climate change, environmental disasters, migration, race, gender and identity and a failed economic model need to be discussed. But they are dynamite.
So, secondly, in order to defuse potential flash points, we recommend adoption of “procedural values” – by which I mean an etiquette of argument that we all say we adhere to but rarely do: active listening, distinguishing between the person and their arguments, and agreeing upon some sort of outcome that can be achieved in the real world. These need to be agreed upon, with the backing of university authorities and union representatives, and closely monitored. There needs to be a general agreement that, in any forum designated as a “community of inquiry”, these procedures apply – and that people will not be targeted outside them for what they say inside, so long as they have also observed the same principles.
Such training and rule setting are often offered, but this must be a continuous process, regularly refreshed and grounded in real debate. If we pursue a culture of reciprocity we can refute the invented moral panic around free speech on campus and also facilitate productive debate about our shared world.