The second reading of a bill in the Lords is very much a chance for peers to offer general opinions on legislation and the issues that underlie it.
Overall the opinion of the Lords appeared to be split on the need for the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill – but almost universally dubious about the text that is on offer.
As such, if the rules of your drinking game had been to drink two fingers each time someone suggested that an aspect of the bill might need improvement as it works its way through the upper house, you’d have been needing more than a couple of Alka-Seltzer the morning after the night before.
Throughout the process the quality of the bill has been a real concern – whether or not you feel the issue of freedom of speech on campus is something that is worth the time and effort required to legislate, those on the red benches seem to think that the bill as it currently stands is riven with contradiction, clashes with other duties, and surfers from plain poor quality drafting.
If you’re a fan of parliament, the quality of debate over the bill in the Commons has also been a concern – characterised by the use of cherry picked stats, a handful of over used anecdotes and an almost universal lack of understanding about what is happening in universities or how it might be addressed.
The Lords had a much better debate, with two stand out speeches that were both, as it happens, against the bill – those of Lord (William) Wallace for the Liberal Democrats, and Baroness (Shami) Chakrabarti for Labour. But there’s still a sense that nobody in parliament really understands the “problem” that is trying to be fixed here – and committee stage looks set to have its work cut out.
As you might expect, there were many peers that drew on their own years at university as evidence or background for their contributions. Lord Wallace used the history of student protest and vigorous on-campus debate to question whether what was on the table would make any meaningful difference to the scrappy but honest record of higher education thus far:
There is nothing new about student protest or arguments about the limits of freedom of speech in universities—and I have been an academic for 40 or more years. The question is whether the imposition of a heavy external burden of intrusive regulation, with the introduction of a new tort that will transfer large sums of money from university funds to lawyers through litigation, is a proportionate response to the limited number of unacceptable instances we have seen”
He situated the Freedom of Speech Bill within wider government trends that run counter to the Prime Minister’s idea of a “global soft superpower” – noting that a review of foreign and security policy had found that the most valuable components of this international influence included:
…the BBC, the British Council, the quality and financial scale of our overseas development programme, the reputation of our universities, and the strength of our cultural sector. Since then, the government have cut the aid budget, sidelined the British Council and repeatedly attacked and financially weakened the BBC. Now this bill threatens to weaken the global standing and reputation of our universities by extending government oversight of academic debate, appointments and promotions.
The freedom of speech “crisis”, to Wallace, was very much an American import – with examples and talking points imported wholesale. He poured scorn on the idea of English universities being “hotbeds of liberalism actively discriminating against honest conservative thinkers” as a talking point from the anti-intellectual US right – asking pointed questions about the way Policy Exchange is funded in the mean time.
And as a former visiting professor at the Central European University he clearly has the right and experience to raise much-warranted concern about the OfS chair’s support for Viktor Orban.
Ignorance is strength?
Baroness Chakrabarti was one of many to refer to Orwell in debate – but the points that she raised were far more original and considered than that literary saw suggested. Her own support for freedom of speech was expressed alongside her support for all other fundamental rights and freedoms:
Freedom of speech is not advanced by particularism, complex or onerous regulation or government tsars but when we each practise what we preach, lead by example and understand that it is the ultimate two-way street in a human rights framework built upon equal treatment, the very antithesis of which is partisan protection and hypocrisy. In short, my speech cannot be free while yours is always treated as a little more expensive or otherwise put practically beyond reach”
Like Wallace, she was powerful in joining the dots between this proposed legislation and what she described as a “wave of anti-rights legislation and rhetoric”. Certainly the arrest of perennial one man Brexit protest Steve Bray during this debate cast significant doubt on the sincerity of a government belief in freedom of speech. Pushing buttons that will give many Conservative peers paused for thought, she asked:
How can it be a protection of academic freedom to give more and more power over independent institutions of scholarship to the government’s Office for Students and the new director for freedom of speech?”
Especially given the real threats to academic freedom seen in precarious academic employment, lack of representation, and political interference in the running of autonomous universities – with Michelle Donelan’s recent veiled threats on the Advance HE Race Equality Charter very much a key example of that.
The government will be more concerned about equivocal (at best) support from members on its own benches. Former ministers like Lords Willetts and Johnson offered faint praise for what was on offer before laying into the bill’s many weaknesses – Johnson focusing on the government’s last minute amendments relating to foreign funding, and Willetts tackling fundamental issues such as how the bill will actually work, and what protection for “lawful free speech” actually means.
On the latter, Willetts drew on the painful example of the IHRA definition of antisemitism – reminding us that while “everything covered in that definition is clearly objectionable, offensive and wrong” not everything that would breach that definition is unlawful. And contradictions with the approach in the Online Safety bill were also on his mind, given that bill proposes to protect adults from (legal but) “harmful content” and “harmful communication” because they will cause “serious distress”:
It is perfectly possible for a university to be fined for breaching this legislation because it would not permit something to be said which an online tech giant would be fined for transmitting. This is a ludicrous position to have got into.
We hope your knees will knock
A couple of spectres haunted the debate that ought to give cause for concern. One was the repeated use of the Kathleen Stock anecdote as evidence of a problem on campus that requires legislation to fix, with all eight references to the affair in the debate apparently taking at face value the established narrative that Stock was hounded off campus by censorious students.
That’s interesting because it’s only thanks to the Lords that we learned in November that OfS had opened an investigation in October 2021 into whether or not the university had met its existing obligations for academic freedom and freedom of speech within the law for all students and staff, whatever their views. That the Lords have subsequently been so incurious about the progress of that investigation is a real problem.
It’s possible that the Stock affair was all as has been reported – she was unfairly harassed and drummed out, and the university failed in its existing 1986 Education Act duty and the HERA public interest governance principle to protect academic freedom and freedom of speech. But if that was the case, wouldn’t we know that by now? And why hasn’t OfS fined? Or issued a condition of registration?
Alternatively, the reporting was twisted. Students protested within the law. Much of the objection to Stock was on anonymous social media and came from outside of the university. Nothing Sussex students or other academics did reached the threshold of harassment and the university did all it could. If that’s what OfS has found, given its overuse in the evidence for the bill, don’t the Lords need to know?
You might even argue that it’s shocking that OfS has been silent on its Sussex investigation, and in the absence of transparency it may not be unfair to assume that its investigation is being suppressed so as not to embarrass either itself for inaction, or the government for repeatedly using the case as bill mill grist.
But the nature of the Sussex case raises another spectre. The other phrase mentioned eight times in the debate was “cancel culture” – Willetts said that universities are places which should offer protection from it, and Baroness Stroud explained how she thought the new free speech champion might go about their work in relation to it:
When a student or academic has been cancelled despite acting within the law, the free speech champion would be empowered to investigate and potentially fine or sanction the censoring bodies.
But given the (also over used) stats on no platforming, the notion of “censoring bodies” might be the ultimate example of intergenerational misunderstanding underpinning the bill.
If “cancel culture” is about anything, it’s not about regulated “bodies” that issue codes of practice or whatever – it’s about individuals, via social media, losing all faith in bodies to protect their rights and using direct (and often anonymous) communication to critique – the cumulative impact of which feels unfair to those it is targeted at, given it comes without due process.
But even if you view that new kind of accountability as wrong, the free speech bill won’t fix it. It’s an analogue bill in a digital age. Or as Chakrabarti put it:
You cannot cancel cancel culture, any more than you can realistically no-platform ideas you detest in the age of the internet. However, you can demonise the courts, the arts, the academy and even the young in a culture war of divide and rule. Some speech is free, it would seem, and some is rather more expensive – that is the real message behind this Orwellian Bill.”
In the summing up, Earl Howe attempted to address the myriad issues raised in the debate with the standard lines given to him – but the list was long, and many of the contradictions and contortions signalled a rough ride to come as the bill hits Grand Committee.
In reality, it is a testament to the roughshod way in which a bill this bad has gotten through the Commons that peers are asked to deal with such fundamental issues – many drew a parallel to the similarly terrible Schools Bill (as Baroness Garden reminded us “a Bill so bad that three Conservative Education Ministers have called for it to be terminated”). Many of the issues raised here had been raised at every stage of Commons debate – DfE really needs to learn how to listen to and take on these criticisms early on rather than inevitably climbing down as ping-pong approaches.
The Labour amendments from Report Stage will – according to Baroness Thornton – return in the Lords. The questions of the independence of the Director for Free Speech, academic freedom including union campaigns, the OfS’ regard to competing freedoms, banning non-disclosure agreements, and a sunset clause (if the whole mess, as expected, does more harm than good) will be discussed again – this time with Conservatives who have a regard for the health of the higher education sector and the niceties of legislative design.
7 responses to “Can OfS cancel cancel culture?”
“surfers from plain poor quality drafting” 👏👏👏
Jim and David:
‘Especially given the real threats to academic freedom … with Michelle Donelan’s recent veiled threats on the Advance HE Race Equality Charter very much a key example of that.’
How are Michelle Donelan’s statements a threat to academic freedom? Academic freedom is not the right of EDI and management to adopt an official line on behalf of everyone else. A university is not a campaign with an agreed line, much as some may want to see it that way. It is the right of an academic (or student) to pursue truth as they see it. And it is harder for them to do that when an institution deems to ‘train’ them in decoloniality and gender theory, adopting these contested ideas as institutional values.
Also ‘the Stock anecdote’ is not an anecdote. It is a reference to the appalling treatment of an academic for holding gender critical views. If the same treatment was meted out to you for your pro gender theory views, I’m sure you’d see it as more than an ‘anecdote’.
It’s a stretch to describe Donelan’s threats as “veiled”, let alone to doubt they are indeed threats. I mean, have you read her letter? What she is objecting to – in terms that talk about “thinking carefully” and immediately follow by talking about public spending on HE – is the Race Equality Charter, a framework created by academics for academics to combat racial discrimination.
It’s not a set of rules anyone is compelled to follow. There’s no ‘training’ in decoloniality’ required. It certainly contains nothing about gender theory. It’s simply a system of stated principles that participating universities agree to uphold. This does not constitute a ‘campaign’ any more than having a recycling policy constitutes a campaign.
In fact, it’s worth cutting and pasting exactly what universities sign up to in the charter:
“• Racial inequalities are a significant issue within higher education. Racial inequalities are not necessarily overt, isolated incidents. Racism is an everyday facet of UK society and racial inequalities manifest themselves in everyday situations, processes and behaviours.
• UK higher education cannot reach its full potential unless it can benefit from the talents of the whole population and until individuals from all ethnic backgrounds can benefit equally from the opportunities it affords.
• In developing solutions to racial inequalities, it is important that they are aimed at achieving long-term institutional culture change, avoiding a deficit model where solutions are aimed at changing the individual.
• Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic staff and students are not a homogenous group. People from different ethnic backgrounds have different experiences of and outcomes from/within higher education, and that complexity needs to be considered in analysing data and developing actions.
• All individuals have multiple identities, and the intersection of those different identities should be considered wherever possible.”
The steps that a university takes to abide by these principles are recorded and, through Advance HE, peers provide feedback on effectiveness and enhancement. They don’t impose or dictate or cancel.
So, exactly what part of that do you – or Michelle Donelan or anyone else who’s not actually a card-carrying member of the EDF – have a problem with?
This isn’t wokery. It’s common decency and common sense. The Race Equality Charter is a practical mechanism to allow the development of a better educational institution without the heavy-handed interference of rules imposed from outside an autonomous organisation.
It’s the kind of activity that many private companies spend millions on both internally and with consultants in order to ensure they eliminate effectiveness-ruining, outcome-damaging, reputation-ruining discrimination from their recruitment and management practices.
The sector is fortunate to have the Race Equality Charter and, when the Minister objects to it, we should bear in mind that what she’s trying to do is create a misguided culture war out of an well-meaning and effective initiative, and, in the process, she’s actually drumming up opposition to race equality.
“Racial inequalities are a significant issue within higher education. Racial inequalities are not necessarily overt, isolated incidents. Racism is an everyday facet of UK society and racial inequalities manifest themselves in everyday situations, processes and behaviours.”
And here we have the root of the problem: an ideology is being applied. This ideology claims as ‘evidence’ the assertion that if there is any difference in outcomes by racial category it is due to racial discrimination. This is Critical Race Theory (CRT) ideology.
The person in charge of the REC project at Advance HE is a signed up CRT believer.
Perhaps the writer might like to reflect that this kind of thinking – that if there is an over representation of a racial/ethnic group in outcomes this should not be tolerated – is exactly the same form of thinking as the ideology promoted in Germany in the 1930s. Also, the writer might like to consider why there is a case being brought against Harvard for discrimination against a certain demographic because they would otherwise be over-represented if admission was based on academic standards.
Here are many relevant quotes by the scholar Thomas Sowell that the writer might like to reflect upon:
“Racism is not dead, but it is on life support — kept alive by politicians, race hustlers and people who get a sense of superiority by denouncing others as ‘racists’ ”
“The word ‘racism’ is like ketchup. It can be put on practically anything – and demanding evidence makes you a ‘racist.’ “
“The sad and tragic fact is that the civil rights movement, despite its honorable and courageous past, has over the years degenerated into a demagogic hustle, promoting the mindless racism they once fought against.”
“If you truly believe in the brotherhood of man, then you must believe that blacks are just as capable of being racists as whites are.”
‘Racism does not have a good track record. It’s been tried out for a long time and you’d think by now we’d want to put an end to it instead of putting it under new management.”
“ I’m so old that I can remember when most of the people promoting race hate were white.”
“Although much of the media have their antennae out to pick up anything that might be construed as racism against blacks, they resolutely ignore even the most blatant racism by blacks against others.”
“Even when black youth gangs target white strangers on the streets and spew out racial hatred as they batter them and rob them, mayors, police chiefs and the media tiptoe around their racism and many in the media either don’t cover these stories or leave out the race and racism involved.”
“Adolescence is a relatively recent thing in human history — a period of years between the constraints of childhood and the responsibilities of adulthood. This irresponsible period of adolescence is artificially extended by long years of education, much of it wasted on frivolities.
Tenure extends adolescence even further for teachers and professors.”
“Intellectuals may like to think of themselves as people who “speak truth to power” but too often they are people who speak lies to gain power.”
“People who are very aware that they have more knowledge than the average person are often very unaware that they do not have one-tenth of the knowledge of all of the average persons put together. In this situation, for the intelligentsia to impose their notions on ordinary people is essentially to impose ignorance on knowledge.”
“The curse of the intelligentsia is their ability to rationalize and re-define. Ordinary people, lacking that gift, are forced to face reality.”
“Just what is it that academics have to fear if they stand up for common decency, instead of letting campus barbarians run amok? “
“People who pride themselves on their “complexity” and deride others for being “simplistic” should realize that the truth is often not very complicated. What gets complex is evading the truth.”
‘Ideas are everywhere, but knowledge is rare.”
“Creating whole departments of ethnic, gender, and other ‘studies’ was part of the price of academic peace. All too often, these ‘studies’ are about propaganda rather than serious education.”
“You need only visit campuses where whole departments feature soft courses preaching a sense of victimhood and resentment, and see the consequences in racial and ethnic polarization on campus.”
“During the 1930s, some of the leading intellectuals in America condemned our economic system and pointed to the centrally planned Soviet economy as a model — all this at a time when literally millions of people were starving to death in the Soviet Union, from a famine in a country with some of the richest farmland in Europe and historically a large exporter of food.”
“The next time some academics tell you how important diversity is, ask how many Republicans there are in their Sociology department”
“Are we to indulge in absolute fantasy and say that statistical ‘diversity’ promotes better intergroup relations, against blatant evidence that it is poisoning people against one another?”
1. Demographic “diversity” is a notion often defended with fervor but seldom with facts.
2. What are the alleged “compelling” benefits of “diversity“? They are as invisible as the proverbial emperor’s new clothes. Yet everyone has to pretend to believe in those benefits, as they pretended to admire the naked emperor’s wardrobe.
3. If there is ever a contest for words that substitute for thought, “diversity” should be recognized as the undisputed world champion. You don’t need a speck of evidence, or a single step of logic, when you rhapsodize about the supposed benefits of diversity. The very idea of testing this wonderful, magical word against something as ugly as reality seems almost sordid.
4. Despite the fervor with which demographic ‘‘diversity’’ is proclaimed as a prime virtue — without a speck of evidence as to its supposed benefits — diversity of ideas gets no such respect.
5. Nothing so epitomizes the politically correct gullibility of our times as the magic word “diversity.” The wonders of diversity are proclaimed from the media, extolled in the academy and confirmed in the august chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States. But have you ever seen one speck of hard evidence to support the lofty claims?
6. “Diversity” has become one of the most often used words of our time– and a word almost never defined. Diversity is invoked in discussions of everything from employment policy to curriculum reform and from entertainment to politics. Nor is the word merely a description of the long-known fact that the American population is made up of people from many countries, many races, and many cultural backgrounds. All that was well known long before the word “diversity” became an insistent part of our vocabulary, an invocation, an imperative, or a bludgeon in ideological conflicts.
7. If there is any place in the Guinness Book of World Records for words repeated the most often, over the most years, without one speck of evidence, “diversity” should be a prime candidate.
“Can you cite one speck of hard evidence of the benefits of “diversity” that we have heard gushed about for years? Evidence of its harm can be seen — written in blood — from Iraq to India, from Serbia to Sudan, from Fiji to the Philippines. It is scary how easily so many people can be brainwashed by sheer repetition of a word.”
“Social values in general are incrementally variable: neither safety, diversity, rational articulation, nor morality is categorically a good thing to have more of, without limits. All are subject to diminishing returns, and ultimately negative returns.”
“To those who feel that their values are THE values, the less controlled systems necessarily present a spectacle of “chaos,” simply because such systems respond to a diversity of values.
The more successfully such systems respond to diversity, the more “chaos” there will be, by definition, according to the standards of ANY specific set of values – other than diversity or freedom as values.
Looked at another way, the more self-righteous observers there are, the more chaos (and “waste”) will be seen.”
EQUALITY AND EQUAL RIGHTS
“If you believe in equal rights, then what do “women’s rights,” “gay rights,” etc., mean? Either they are redundant or they are violations of the principle of equal rights for all.”
“When people get used to preferential treatment, equal treatment seems like discrimination.”
“Nobody is equal to anybody. Even the same man is not equal to himself on different days.”
“There are few talents so richly rewarded – especially in politics and the media – as the ability to portray parasites as victims, and portray demands for preferential treatment as struggles for equal rights.”
“Civil rights used to be about treating everyone the same. But today some people are so used to special treatment that equal treatment is considered to be discrimination.”
“Policies are judged by their consequences but crusades are judged by how good they make the crusaders feel.”
“The vision of the anointed is one in which ills as poverty, irresponsible sex, and crime derive primarily from ‘society,’ rather than from individual choices and behavior. To believe in personal responsibility would be to destroy the whole special role of the anointed, whose vision casts them in the role of rescuers of people treated unfairly by ‘society’. “
“There are only two ways of telling the complete truth – anonymously and posthumously.”
“The most basic question is not what is best, but who shall decide what is best.”
“Mistakes can be corrected by those who pay attention to facts but dogmatism will not be corrected by those who are wedded to a vision.”
“For the anointed, traditions are likely to be seen as the dead hand of the past, relics of a less enlightened age, and not as the distilled experience of millions who faced similar human vicissitudes before.”
“There are few things more dishonorable than misleading the young.”
“The big problem in the long process of dumbing down the schools is that you can reach a point of no return. How are parents who never received a decent education themselves to recognize that their children are not getting a decent education?”
“Our whole educational system, from the elementary schools to the universities, is increasingly turning out people who have never heard enough conflicting arguments to develop the skills and discipline required to produce a coherent analysis, based on logic and evidence. The implications of having so many people so incapable of confronting opposing arguments with anything besides ad hominem responses reach far.”
“Ideological bigotry has become the norm on even our most prestigious campuses, where students can go for years without reading or hearing anything that challenges the left vision.”
“Not only is patriotism disdained, the very basis for pride in one’s country and culture is systematically undermined in our educational institutions at all levels. The achievements of western civilization are buried in histories that portray every human sin found here as if they were peculiarities of the west.”
“A recently reprinted memoir by Frederick Douglass has footnotes explaining what words like ‘arraigned,’ ‘curried’ and ‘exculpate’ meant, and explaining who Job was. In other words, this man who was born a slave and never went to school educated himself to the point where his words now have to be explained to today’s expensively under-educated generation.”
“Someone once said that the most important knowledge is knowledge of our own ignorance. Our schools are depriving millions of students of that kind of knowledge by promoting “self-esteem” and encouraging them to have opinions on things of which they are grossly ignorant, if not misinformed.”
“It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance.”
“Education is not merely neglected in many of our schools today, but is replaced to a great extent by ideological indoctrination.”
“The promotion of “self-esteem” in our schools has been so successful that people feel free to spout off about all sorts of things – and see no reason why their opinions should not be taken as seriously as the views of people who actually know what they are talking about.”
“It doesn’t matter how smart you are unless you stop and think.”
“Too much of what is called ‘education’ is little more than an expensive isolation from reality.”
“The problem isn’t that Johnny can’t read. The problem isn’t even that Johnny can’t think. The problem is that Johnny doesn’t know what thinking is; he confuses it with feeling.”
“Not since the days of the Hitler Youth have young people been subjected to more propaganda on more politically correct issues. At one time, educators boasted that their role was not to teach students what to think but how to think. Today, their role is far too often to teach students what to think on everything from immigration to global warming to the new sacred trinity of ‘race, class and gender.’ “
“In a democracy, we have always had to worry about the ignorance of the uneducated. Today we have to worry about the ignorance of people with college degrees.”
“Some of the biggest cases of mistaken identity are among intellectuals who have trouble remembering that they are not God.”
“One of the most important reasons for studying history is that virtually every stupid idea that is in vogue today has been tried before and proved disastrous before, time and again.”
“Of all ignorance, the ignorance of the educated is the most dangerous. Not only are educated people likely to have more influence, they are the last people to suspect that they don’t know what they are talking about when they go outside their narrow fields.”
“One of the painful signs of years of dumbed-down education is how many people are unable to make a coherent argument. They can vent their emotions, question other people’s motives, make bold assertions, repeat slogans– anything except reason.”
“One of the many disservices done to young people by our schools and colleges is giving them the puffed up notion that they are in a position to pass sweeping judgments on a world that they have barely begun to experience.”
“In the long run, the greatest weapon of mass destruction is stupidity.”
“Stupid people can cause problems, but it usually takes brilliant people to create a real catastrophe.”
On the basis that the underpinning theory behind any training course can be contested, are you saying all staff training of academics should be banned?!
I’m surprised an academic is prepared to reach the kinds of judgements you are making on the Stock affair without any proper investigation or due process as opposed to some newspaper coverage and some interviews from one side of that story. It may well be that Stock was treated appallingly – but I haven’t seen anything like enough evidence to that end and as such wouldn’t want to base a new piece of legislation on it.
Training implies mastering technique. You can’t ‘train’ someone to agree with ‘white privilege’ as an explanation for racism, or gender theory as a theory of sex/gender. They are matters of a different order. Yet ‘training’ is what we get. These ideas are worthy of discussion, but presented as institutional norms, they seldom get that. So no, I do not think staff training should be banned – that is a ridiculous suggestion. But I do think that university training telling people how they should conceive of sex/gender or race are absolutely wrong, especially when on both counts these ideas are contested.
If you follow issues such as decolonise, for example, you’ll know there are brilliant critiques out there written by young black British and African authors. There is no reason why a student or lecturer should not feel confident to hold these views and criticise decolonialism. Likewise on sex / gender, Stock, Helen Joyce etc have written estimable books on this. But ‘training’ in the ‘right’ approach, and semi official endorsements of specific political and philosophical positions by unis discourages this.
As for Kathleen Stock, you’ve read the reports, and many of the reported actions are not disputed. It’s not an anecdote – it’s belittling to refer to it in that way.
I’m not surprised to read Dickinson write a piece, squeezing in Brexit and Orban, that strains itself to avoid the substantive problem. Rich inadvertently demonstrates the problem when he describes anyone criticising the REC as ‘a card carrying member if the EDF’. Way to demonstrate depth, open mindedness and a commitment to free speech! As it happens l agree with the point on limits of legislation, but if you accept gross overgeneralizations, such as racism is part of everyday life in Britain accepted as self-evident truths, then maybe some legislation and open criticism might help.