Universities should oppose, not just refine, the Free Speech Bill

Jack Ballingham is Opportunities Officer at Durham SU

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill has so far generated a lot of interest, debate and criticism among higher education policy experts – and rightly so.

However, the debate it has generated among students remains limited, in part because for the majority of students it is simply a non-issue, and the list of concerns related to their education lies elsewhere.

It addresses a problem which is largely confected, jumping at the shadows of “cancel culture” and “no-platforming” generated by a media class intent on whipping up a moral panic around academia and universities – the Office for Students’ own data shows this to be the case.

What is also clear is that the Bill has been badly drafted and leaves open many questions. How will the Office of the Independent Adjudicator’s complaints procedure interact with the Office for Students’ new one? How should students’ unions square the apparent clash between “freedom of speech within the law” and existing Charity Commission guidance? These and other quite correct questions have been raised by many within the HE sector.

A question of policy?

As a result of these questions, much discourse has been driven by the idea that the Bill is simply an example of “bad policy”. Obviously, this is an indisputable fact, given the myriad contradicting duties and responsibilities the Bill will create. But this is often put down to incompetence by government ministers, who, it is argued, do not understand how the higher education sector works.

Ministers like the recently departed Gavin Williamson are useful examples, often portrayed as hapless or dim-witted, out of their depth and with no idea about the sector they now find themselves governing. It has also been observed that the Bill’s course through the Commons has been marked by MPs who do not properly understand the issue, talking past each other and making “ideological” points. In many instances, the criticism is that the government just doesn’t “get it”.

In a policy context, this is perhaps a natural reaction. The process of the Bill’s passage through Parliament invites expert views, specific textual criticisms, and suggestions for changes that will improve the finished article. But what can get lost in this debate is the broader context of the Bill.

Bigger picture

Why has this law been introduced? What does the government hope to achieve with it? The government’s command paper from February may be cited here – they want to end the “chilling effect”, stop academics being “cancelled”, and generally free up academic debate and discussion. Or at least, that’s what the paper says.

We may, rightly, point to the mountain of evidence that suggests these issues are simply a moral panic, and that numbers of cancelled events and other such metrics and studies show the matter is wildly exaggerated. The government, surely, is therefore misguided in pursuing this issue. They are on a wild goose chase, unnecessarily wasting legislative time and resources.

The government knows all of this, of course. They know that the evidence is stacked against them. It would be a fantasy to think that ministers are simply unaware of this evidence or do not understand it. When they complain about “cancel culture” or statues, it misses the point to reply that this Bill does not address those issues. What must be understood is that this is not a matter of problems and solutions. It is a matter of pretexts and action.

What can be obscured in debate and discussion is that the government, quite simply, views higher education as a source of dissent, as a part of civil society occupied by troublemakers and inveterate complainers – people who will oppose the government’s agenda. Both inside and outside the HE sector, the government can expect the student movement to be a hub of opposition to its policy.

By passing this Bill, more power will be foisted upon the Office for Students, a body which will be further politicised by the new “Director of Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom”. Given the government’s track record (the tales surrounding the appointment of James Wharton and the near miss of Toby Young need little introduction), it should be expected that this new role will become another political appointee, this time one with direct oversight of public discussion and debate itself.

You can’t beat a bit of bully

The implications of this are obvious. With the government following an idea of free speech which is already clearly a warped one, it is difficult to see this new “Free Speech Director” fulfilling a role other than that of the government’s effective political officer within the HE sector. The position will be used as a bully pulpit for the government’s positions, in an attempt to reign in the sector as a whole.

Some would argue that this represents an apocalyptic reading of the Bill, but it fits the wider context of the government’s legislative agenda. This year’s Covert Human Intelligence Sources Act widened the government’s powers in permitting undercover agents of the security services to commit crimes in the course of their “duties”. The problems with this law should be immediately obvious, but its relevance to the HE sector may be less so.

However, the CHIS Act comes after the uncovering of a long and dark history of the state’s use of covert sources to infiltrate and report on groups considered dangerous. While some unsurprising groups were surveilled (neo-Nazi groups, for example), the list of those spied on also includes trade unions, peace organisations, civil rights campaign groups – and the National Union of Students, which was infiltrated and informed on by a state agent between (at least) 1993 and 1997.

The government is also pursuing the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – which gives police even more sweeping powers over protest, reducing the threshold for their ability to break up demonstrations. It also changes trespass from a civil to a criminal offence, and makes it punishable by the confiscation of vehicles used in an act of trespass. Such a measure not only effectively criminalises the way of life of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, but would see them punished by the loss of their homes.

And as if to stoke the culture war fires even further, the Bill also massively increases the penalty for vandalism of public statues and monuments. The restrictions on protest pose a particular threat to the student movement for obvious reasons. Its provisions mean that student demonstrations, both large national protests and localised campus action, are far more likely to be met with disproportionate force.

Especially notable is that much of the government’s justification for the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill revolves around events disrupted by protest, which is of course just as valid an expression of free speech as anything else. Together, these Bills give the state a dangerous new suite of powers to crack down on student protest. It would be naïve to think this is a simple coincidence, let alone an honest mistake.

Tackling the blob

Both these laws, along with the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, represent a common trend. As the CHIS Act seeks to extend the powers of the state over all areas of civil society opposition, and the PCSC Bill cracks down on protest movements, this Bill does the same for the higher education sector. The Bill is an attempt to rein in an area of civil society in which, the government believes, intervention is well overdue.

Meanwhile, the government will continue to cut funding for teaching qualifications in the arts, humanities and social sciences, and universities, under the pressure of marketisation, will continue to axe courses like archaeology, history, languages, and politics – subjects which contribute to our collective understanding of the world, and give students essential critical skills.

Reducing access to these courses, cracking down on student protest and giving OfS more power are all part of a drive to stifle universities as sources of debate, criticism and, yes, protest, and to turn them to the service of business and “the economy” (even more so than they already are). The government is not acting here out of sheer incompetence, and ministers are not simply dithering fools.

Kevan Jones MP may have been quite correct when he referred in a public bill committee session to the possibility of a future “radical” government wielding these new powers to undesirable ends. What he was wrong about was the hypothetical nature of that government. It is already here.

Of course, it remains true that articulating specific criticisms of the Bill and opposing it in Parliament are crucial tools for highlighting the hypocrisy and malintent that underlies it. But the higher education sector must be clear – this Bill must be opposed.

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