This article is more than 6 years old

Burning books on Boxing Day

Andrew McRae adds some light to the latest heated draft about free speech in universities
This article is more than 6 years old

Andrew McRae is Dean of Postgraduate Research at the University of Exeter and was formerly Head of the English Department.

It’s unnerving to wake on Boxing Day to the news that universities are apparently opposed to free speech. It’s frankly alarming when this news is being delivered by the Minister for Universities.

Some newspapers appear to have relied exclusively on a press release about a forthcoming speech by Jo Johnson. The text is full of broad assertions, with very little balance, including about the Prevent regulations that already prescribe limits on free speech, giving the government an impact beyond the letter of the law. We had Jo Johnson on the Today programme, tossing out some rather wild claims about books being removed from libraries, trigger warnings closing minds, and so forth. Yes, that’s our minister.

Where’s the evidence?

It is possible that Johnson has a dossier of evidence to support his assertions. If so, let’s hope this doesn’t prove as elusive as those Brexit impact assessments, because every academic in the country is curious. It’s equally possible, though, that the evidence is somehow always over the horizon. Perhaps it would be a better practice to start with the evidence before going to the press; that’s certainly how university researchers operate.

Some journalists leapt to an apparent link with the debate at the University of Oxford over the research and teaching of colonial history. But it’s not yet clear that Johnson wants publicly to draw this link himself, however much he might like the feeling of crowd-surfing through a dull news day on the back of it. The simple fact, worth underlining, is that the debate in Oxford is the very stuff of academic discourse. It’s about the practice and ethics of an academic discipline, not about closing minds and burning books. That’s a critical distinction, and one would hope the minister might acknowledge it or, even better, defend it.

Others reach to a couple of cases that might can now be labelled ‘notorious’, if only because they have been rehearsed in some sections of the media so many times. For instance, the supposed ‘no-platforming’ of Germaine Greer at Cardiff University, which has assumed near-mythical status. Fine, but the evidence is not entirely clear in this case, and indeed she did eventually give a talk. More importantly, that was an event organised by a students’ union rather than a university, and there’s an important distinction between the two. Surely the government does not want universities to interfere in the independent decisions of their student-run students’ unions? They are also under the purview of existing regulations, such as Prevent and in most cases the Charity Commission.

Beyond that, the criticism degenerates rapidly into vague suggestions that certain views are not being heard. On the one hand, this misrepresents what actually happens in universities. We’re not like Parliament or the BBC, organising the pursuit of knowledge around spurious notions of binary contestation, or ‘balance’. I mean, is Johnson about to suggest that we invite Nigel Lawson to speak at our climate-science conferences? Nor do we routinely stage public debates that, say, a member of the far right might even want to attend. Such events occasionally happen on university premises, but they are much more likely to be organised by students.

And as for those books we’re removing from sensitive student eyes, please show us the evidence, preferably before making public accusations and insinuations. Sensible and committed academics rushed to social media today after hearing this allegation, genuinely bemused by it. Without evidence, it’s a contemptible insult to people who care deeply about universities.

Murky politics

I would be willing to bet that no UK university will ever be sanctioned under the regulations that Johnson proposes, as with vice chancellor pay. But similarly, that’s not the point. This isn’t about action, it’s about appearances. The free speech issue probably says much less about any real problem than it does about a minister keen to present his credentials to some parts of the electorate, and to create an impression of putting universities in their place. But he’s playing with fire.

The politics of this debate have been marked out clearly in the US. There, far-right political figures have repeatedly manipulated events to create an impression that universities are censoring them. In fact the evidence is more equivocal. Berkeley, for instance, was prepared to spend millions of dollars on enhanced security so that Milo Yiannopoulos could safely speak on its campus. But – what do you know – he didn’t show. He preferred the ‘censorship’ narrative.

So universities are hammered over and again as closed-minded and politically uniform. This plays nicely to a certain audience, but represents a risky positioning of political games over reality. It also threatens to undermine the public status of universities, and in turn their standing internationally. Maybe similar trends in the US might be expected to worry a UK minister, but in this instance he seems happy enough fiddling with his box of matches.

Generation games

There’s also a nasty generational politics at work here. The Today programme interviewer played into this by making claims about what ‘the students’ want – which, listeners were told, was absolutely not free speech. That’s seriously poor journalism. At a time when so many students are arguing with passion about numerous political and cultural issues, the ‘snowflake’ slur remains a nasty, unsubstantiated political fabrication.

Here’s an idea: how about we talk with some students at times like these? How about we not rely on the ventriloquizing of them – the ‘students think’ piffle – of middle-aged white men? How about we engage with some articulate, intelligent people, who are different to ourselves, and want to change a world that often doesn’t work in their interests or according to their values? Academics and students’ unions have a lot of experience doing exactly this, and though they don’t always get it right, you can bet everyone is learning together as they go, without relying on simple soundbites. Genuinely free speech should be an ongoing process.

Role models

The best piece of journalism I read this morning was also about the political corruption of speech, but it had nothing to do with universities. This article, in The Washington Post, was a detailed investigation into Russian interference in Western politics. For anyone who heard Jo Johnson’s brother Boris in Moscow last week, arguing that the Russians interfered in the Brexit referendum but ‘not successfully’, this should be essential reading.

Yes, minister, there are reasons to be concerned today about the politics of speech. But before you continue with the assault on universities as part of the problem, it would be nice if you could reveal your evidence, and it would be worth your while to reflect on where this might all lead British higher education. We had been led to believe, after all, that you were the Johnson who thought the most about the consequences of his speech.

3 responses to “Burning books on Boxing Day

  1. While recognising it was Boxing Day, two problems here that are encapsulated in your phrase “it would be a better practice to start with the evidence before going to the press; that’s certainly how university researchers operate” (3rd para). Firstly, complaining about the standard of journalism without recognising our post-truth culture could be seen as a glaring ‘context’ omission – ‘fake news’ just isn’t enough of a concept and what role are academics playing in defining our rapidly declining standard of public debate? And so, secondly, just how do ‘university researchers operate’? Or more precisely, what are academics doing about the glaring need to debate the role of universities, especially in defining the ‘public good’ they provide? Without that debate, isn’t it rather obvious that in our media climate universities are providing an easy open goal for any opportunistic politician?

  2. I wonder if the government would like to offer a financial incentive such as being able to increase fees for universities that promote free speech?… after all everything has a price, even free speech.

  3. Happy New Year! “How about we engage with some articulate, intelligent people, who are different to ourselves, and want to change a world that often doesn’t work in their interests or according to their values?”… indeed how about that? From my experience that’s exactly what the new left wing (mostly populated by old trots and students or still-wannabee students) don’t want to do! However, t’was ever thus – every generation blames the one before. Student Unions were always left wing, idealistic and naïve; the difference in the past was that we generally grew up after leaving uni 🙂

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