Matt Western argues that the government’s manufactured free speech crisis attacks both students and universities
The government’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is a distraction. Given that nearly everything covered in the bill is covered by existing legislation, it is not necessary; if there are issues, they could be covered by amendments to existing legislation.
But that is to ignore the pure purpose of this bill. It is designed as an attack on the independence of universities and students’ unions. And although it is disguised as a mechanism to protect them, it is also an attack on students themselves. It is premised on a claimed crisis of free speech that has been entirely manufactured in Whitehall—designed to serve the government’s divisive agenda at students’ expense.
I’ve said elsewhere that I fear a new McCarthyism—this time sweeping this side of the Atlantic. The bill will imbue the Office for Students with powers and responsibilities to uphold ‘freedom of speech’ on university campuses and fine universities and student unions if they fail to meet their legal obligations. The government will also create a ‘free speech champion’.
Of course, freedom of speech is a heavily contested term—but the bill defines it as: “Freedom to express ideas, beliefs and views without suffering adverse consequences.” The evidence shows that students do not consider free speech, by any definition, to be under threat—and nor does the general population.
A King’s College London report in 2019 found that three-quarters of students felt their freedom of speech was not threatened at university. Guest speakers are hardly ever blocked or ‘no-platformed’. In 2017-18, the Office for Students found that of more than 62,000 requests for external speakers made at UK universities, only 53 were rejected.
Students are far more outraged about receiving inadequate financial support over the course of a pandemic that has hit them harder than almost any other demographic, insufficient mental health support and a lack of action to prevent sexual violence and harassment—as well as about the tuition fees they must pay.
The truth is, the bill will jeopardise the very freedoms it purports to protect. It will stifle decolonisation of our curricula as well as revisionist British and global histories, and it will protect those with offensive and potentially racist views. It will also demonise often underpaid academics who have earned the right not to ‘leave their views at home’.
What is more, the free speech bill is designed to protect speech that is “hugely offensive” and “hugely hurtful” (as universities minister Michelle Donelan put it on the BBC’s Today programme as she mistakenly defended the rights of Holocaust denier David Irving to speak at universities)—as long as it is legal. In fact, the government’s online harms bill explicitly forbids offensive and harmful speech on social media, regardless of whether it is legal—in a move widely welcomed as justified in the pursuit of preventing hate speech and racism.
Why is the government putting forward a bill that could protect racists, antisemites and eugenicists?
What we are seeing is a government increasingly concerned with policing and ‘correcting’ the behaviour of students and academics—and doing it through state-imposed sanctions in the name of free speech. But in doing this, ministers are treading a dangerous and slippery slope.
Absolutely there are some problems with free speech at universities. Casualised contracts for academics mean their output can be diluted, controlled and dictated from above. The Prevent strategy stigmatises Muslim students while encouraging referrals for even minor anti-establishment views. As the University and College Union has said, the real threat to free speech comes from the government’s ‘authoritarian agenda’: the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill restricting students’ rights to protest; ministerial attacks on critics of empire in academic or cultural institutions; and ministers calling for the heads of academics in committee meetings.
The back-of-a-fag-packet free speech bill creates an issue where there is none. It undermines liberal values, threatens academic freedom and will act as ammunition for endless tabloid stories demonising students and academics. It will not destroy progressive thinking; it will galvanise it. It will not protect free speech; it will undermine it.
It is not a free speech bill at all. This is, in essence, a hate speech bill.
Matt Western is shadow universities minister. He will be writing regular columns for Research Professional News in the next academic year.