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Open minds, free speech

Nick Hillman sees problems with free speech on campus and legislation designed to protect it

Freedom of speech is particularly important in universities because if fierce debate cannot happen there, where there is such enormous expertise, where can it? 

Ministers put universities in the Last Chance Saloon on free speech issues some time ago. They have now decided that that strategy has failed and are promising a new free speech tsar, to make it easier for staff, students and visiting speakers to seek financial redress when their rights are breached and to strengthen control over students’ unions. 

Whether this is a wise approach or not, many of the immediate responses to the new Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which was published on Wednesday, imply there is no issue with free speech on campus. I disagree. 

Legitimate concerns 

When we at the Higher Education Policy Institute undertook the first detailed polling of undergraduates on free speech issues five years ago, we found lots of illiberalism and lots of confusion. While a majority of students (60 per cent) said universities should never limit free speech, three-quarters (76 per cent) backed No Platform policies, half (48 per cent said debate inside universities should take place only within specific guidelines and over one-third (38 per cent) wanted student unions to ban the sale of tabloid newspapers. 

More than a quarter of students (27 per cent) wanted UKIP banned from campus, even though our research was undertaken just three months before the Brexit referendum, when EU membership was the number one issue facing the country and UKIP were on the winning side. 

Some of our results were contradictory or just downright baffling. But to be fair to our student respondents, these are inherently difficult topics. Perhaps all of us like free speech in theory more than we like it in practice. The government itself seeks to control the exercise of free speech on university campuses via the Prevent Duty.

So the conclusion of our research was measured. We suggested: “Higher education institutions need to help their students, particularly their younger students, through the thicket. It has become a cliché to say students are partners in learning, but they need to be led too.” 

Whether more action back then might have dampened the whole issue down and stopped the arguments for new legislation now is an interesting thought experiment. 

Attempts to quash debate 

Another reason why I think that there is an issue to be discussed is the responses academics have made to HEPI’s own output. While we never set out to court controversy, we do stumble across it. In recent times, HEPI’s work on issues such as opening up access to previously published research, illegal drug use among students and the educational underachievement of young men have led to particularly fraught conversations, including—depressingly—attempts by academics to close down debate by calling for us to withdraw published papers

We have also released reports on the pros and cons of academic selection and, in response to the former, were told we should consider disbanding by one prominent academic who ironically is an expert on Getting Evidence into Education‘. 

It was a crazy way to respond, not least because the author of our report, Iain Mansfield, is now an adviser to the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, who is introducing the new legislation. 

So the new Bill is a clever political move in the sense that it takes an issue of public concern, at least if judged by recent media coverage, and then seeks to tackle it by emphasising a value—freedom of speech—that few people oppose. 

Problematic legislation  

However, just because there is a problem does not mean the proposed legislation to tackle it is unproblematic. 

First, on close inspection, some of the arguments used in favour of the new legislation are, bizarrely, arguments against free speech. We are told, for example, that the new legislation is necessary because “over one hundred academics signed a letter expressing public opposition to Professor Nigel Biggar’s research project ‘Ethics and Empire‘”. As far as I can tell, nothing in the legislation would block these academics from criticising Biggar’s work in public. To do so would be to restrict rather than protect their freedom of speech. 

Secondly, I worry that provocateurs may use the legislation to stoke problems. This is not a theoretical concern; it is based on past events—try internet searching ‘Milo Yiannopoulos’ or ‘Patrick Harrington‘ for instance. It is possible to respect the power of Voltaire’s supposed stance (‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’) while simultaneously not wanting the important work of universities to get bogged down in expensive and unedifying rows about whether a Holocaust denier has the right to unsettle students (or worse) by speaking freely on campus. 

Chilling effects 

Thirdly, I worry about a potential chilling effect, which could prove counterproductive. It is not implausible that a busy student, who is already juggling academic work and perhaps paid employment with running a society, might simply be put off from inviting external speakers in future. If defending vibrant debate on campus becomes bogged down with extra red tape, new complaints procedures and the risk of financial hits when things go wrong, some may steer clear. In other words, there is a risk not only of motivating provocateurs but also discouraging the intellectually curious. 

I don’t sense the government wants that outcome and, in any case, the battle about the right limits of free speech is about to move off campus and into parliament. Many members of the House of Lords, in particular, are known to take a deep interest in both higher education and the protection of free speech. The process of parliamentary scrutiny for this new legislation is therefore likely to be especially important, and I would be amazed if the final Act closely resembles the current Bill in all respects.  

In the meantime, we can show the best of our sector by disagreeing civilly rather than unprofessionally, by inviting contrary voices to engage with and challenge our thinking and by stressing the vital civic role that higher education institutions play. We could even draft specific amendments to the new legislation for parliamentarians to consider. 

In the end, however, the best way to ensure higher education institutions reflect the full diversity of opinion and experiences is to throw open their doors as wide as possible. When you limit access, the middle classes retain a firm grip on places. If instead you expand entry, then universities will become ever more accurate reflections of the society they serve. 

Nick Hillman is director of the Higher Education Policy Institute