England’s regulator receives tiny number of notifications about reading lists and trigger warnings
The Office for Students has only ever received “one or two” complaints about universities removing books from reading lists or using so-called trigger warnings, its chief executive has said.
Appearing before the House of Commons education select committee on 7 September, Susan Lapworth was asked about the scale of her concern about restrictions on free speech and academic freedom on university campuses.
“We receive notifications from staff or students and often third parties where they think they can see concerns about free speech within a particular university and we can count so we start to build a picture of people suggesting concerns,” Lapworth said.
Asked to break down the number of reported concerns, Lapworth said that since the OfS was founded just under five years ago, there had been “roughly 800 notifications in total about any number of matters, and they might relate to the same thing multiple times”.
“In relation to free speech broadly, [we have received] perhaps around 60 [notifications]. And in relation to book lists and trigger warnings, one or two—so that that gives you a sense of scale.”
She added that press reports about free speech issues at universities could sometimes prompt a “flurry” of complaints.
“What I think is of more concern to us is the things that we can’t see,” Lapworth told the session. “[Such as] how would we recognise a culture in a university…where staff felt that they couldn’t put a book on their reading list [in the first place]?”
On multiple occasions during the session, education committee chair and Conservative MP Robert Halfon compared universities in England to Islamic fundamentalists because institutions sometimes update their reading lists or include content warnings as part of their syllabuses.
“The Taliban seem to be alive and well right across our higher education, because it seems to be banning books or removing them from shelves because of sensitivities,” he said. One example Halfon gave was the removal of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad from the reading list of a writing course at the University of Essex.
Responding at the session was Anthony Forster, vice-chancellor of Essex, who made it clear that the university “does not have a policy of banning books and indeed the Underground Railroad is not banned—multiple copies of that book are in our library”.
“[The Underground Railroad] was withdrawn [from one reading list] because, in updating that particular module, the academics in charge felt that, for pedagogic reasons relating to the learning outcomes, there were more suitable texts. The book hasn’t been permanently banned, it hasn’t been permanently withdrawn, it is available.”
A second example given by Halfon related to the University of Sussex, where August Strindberg’s Miss Julie was removed from a university foundation year course for new university students.
Sussex vice-chancellor Sasha Roseneil responded to clarify that the book “wasn’t permanently withdrawn”.
“It was swapped that year, and has been on and off that reading list for a number of years,” she said. “It’s a critical reading skills module, so in fact any text could serve a purpose in that module.”