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Free speech university rankings: a case of grade inflation

The widely-publicised Free Speech University Rankings are back for another year and so Paul Greatrix takes a look behind the curtain at the really serious methodology, with a surprising twist.
This article is more than 7 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

Exciting news for those of us in higher education who believe in free speech as the third incisive Spiked analysis of free speech in universities is published. Always a landmark event and sure to grab the headlines as examples of shocking repression in the higher education sector are paraded in the quality press.

For example, we have this on the report just in from the National Secular Society:

It highlighted London South Bank University’s Code of Practice for Freedom of Speech, which warns students that one definition of an ‘unlawful meeting’ is one “at which there is a likelihood that the speaker(s) may… commit blasphemy”. In 2014 the University removed posters from their student atheist society for being “religiously offensive”.

Warwick University’s Student Union Policy is also criticised for stating that speakers ‘must seek to avoid insulting other faiths or groups’. In 2015 the University’s student union barred Iranian-born secularist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie from speaking, claiming she was “highly inflammatory and could incite hatred” if allowed to take up secularist society invitation.

Nottingham University’s Student Union policy on “respecting religion” opposes “provocative” organisations and “certain groups with known antireligious views”.

I’ve stressed here before just how brilliant this particular ranking is and with its unique and highly accurate traffic light system it really is extraordinarily difficult to argue with:

I enjoy a good laugh and it was a genuine joy to happen across the Spiked “Free Speech Rankings”. Naturally I assumed was a spoof, a bit like People and Planet but with less effort. But no, despite how silly this looks at first sight, it seems that this is a serious attempt at ranking universities according to a set of criteria associated with free speech.

Having scrutinised the table even more closely it seems my first impressions were very wide of the mark indeed. This is, in fact, the finest league table which higher education rankings wonks have ever had the privilege to pore over.

But I’m afraid we now have a bit of a problem. With grade inflation. Just look at these numbers:

Spiked’s groundbreaking analysis of campus censorship in the UK has published its third annual report, and it paints a grim picture. Our survey, ranking 115 UK universities using our traffic-light system, shows that 63.5 per cent of universities now actively censor speech, and 30.5 per cent stifle speech through excessive regulation. This marks a steady rise in censorship over the past three years. Now only six per cent of UK universities are truly free, open places.

It is a grim picture indeed. There has been a real rise in the number of institutions achieving a prestigious red rating. And, according to the Independent, the Russell Group has yet again exploited the system by achieving a disproportionate collection of red awards.

Let’s see those ratings again:

RED – A students’ union, university or institution that is hostile to free speech and free expression, mandating explicit restrictions on speech, including, but not limited to, bans on specific ideologies, political affiliations, beliefs, books, speakers or words.

AMBER – A students’ union, university or institution that chills free speech and free expression by issuing guidance with regard to appropriate speech and conduct. Policies in this category often concern themselves with the tone, rather than the content, of speech and ideas. This includes, but is not limited to, restrictions on ‘offensive’, ‘controversial’ or ‘provocative’ speech and expression. Policies which vet speakers, literature or events may also fall within this category.

GREEN – A students’ union, university or institution that, as far as we are aware, places no restrictions on free speech and expression – other than where such speech or expression is unlawful.

Now, before we look a the impact of these very precise criteria let’s just check the grounds for inclusion in this august league table:

The survey assesses 115 institutions. The universities were selected from the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s (HEFCE) list of UK universities that it funds. A number of institutions were excluded on a range of grounds. Medical, arts and agricultural institutions were excluded entirely.

But 23 of these 115 highly select universities are in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland and not funded by HEFCE which makes matters a tad confusing. As does the immunity of those medical, creative and agricultural institutions and their students – why are they beyond the pale? This is extraordinarily unfair on the likes of Harper Adams, Norwich University of the Arts and St George’s and their censorious students’ unions and administrations. It really just reinforces the free speech restriction privileges of larger, broader and less arty/farmy/medical institutions.

If we leave aside just for a minute the rather arbitrary selectivity of the league table, we come to the actual results where we find that 73 out of 115 institutions or an extraordinary 63% achieve the highest rating. And another 30% come very close with amber ratings. So, in the same way as there is tabloid outrage at the growth in first class degrees (which have now reached a quarter of all degree classifications) we should all be concerned at the excessive award of the highest and most prestigious red category to nearly two-thirds of universities.

How has it happened that this once measured, balanced and not at all over-inflated or hysterical ranking appears to have allowed such grade inflation to happen? Perhaps the answer lies in the assessment framework:

A university’s or students’ union’s individual ranking is arrived at by assessing its policies and actions.

The score is the equivalent of the university’s or students’ union’s most severe policy. For instance, a university that holds three Amber and one Red policy would receive an overall Red ranking. This is on the condition that a policy will only be given a Red or Amber ranking if it places a significant restriction on free speech and expression. Policies that only affect a specific area of campus life, such as IT policies, will be given the weight of a Red or Amber Action.

Red or Amber actions are the equivalent of one third of the weight of a Red or Amber policy.For instance, if an otherwise Amber university has three Red actions to its name, this would raise its ranking to an overall Red. What’s more, if an otherwise Green university has two Red Actions to its name, this is enough to raise the university to an Amber ranking.

The overall ranking

The institution’s overall ranking is the average of the university’s and students’ union’s individual rankings. When one is Red and the other is Green, the overall ranking will be Amber. But, if one is Amber and the other is either Red or Green, the number and severity of the policies on either side are used to make a judgement as to what rank the institution should receive.

This possibly explains it. Once you have institutions stopping dangerous initiation events and having a policy to prevent bullying and harassment and thereby scoring reds and ambers, things are only going to go one way. It does look like the methodology, sophisticated as it is, might need a tweak or two, or before we know it, every institution will be claiming a red rating.

This grade inflation has to be tackled, or there is a real danger that the credibility, veracity and precision of the utterly outstanding Free Speech ranking will be compromised. Unless the number of universities (HEFCE-funded or agricultural or not) achieving the highest red ratings is tackled, then it’s going to be hard to distinguish where the best universities for wilful contrarians to attend really are.

5 responses to “Free speech university rankings: a case of grade inflation

  1. I never understood this as a really serious thing in terms of methodology and so on, but rather an overall cautionary tale about HE as a whole. You have to admit, the highlighted cases really are breathtaking.

  2. This is trite. There is an Orwellian creep in these policies, captured in the report. For example, policies to prevent bullying and harassment where accusations of ‘gossip’ and ‘ignoring’ a person ‘will be’ investigated, where hate speech exists based on perception regardless of motivation, policies that enable the no platforming of speakers based on religious offence.A few academics are being disingenuous in equating opposition to these policies as akin to supporting racism and sexism. Free speech is a prerequisite for defeating bad ideas.

  3. This article appears to be a big fan of the ‘free speech’ rankings but then goes on to list everything that is wrong with its methodology! Nothing in this article to endear me to the rankings, if anything it highlights even more the flawed nature of it! Worrying that Wonkhe thinks this is an excellent piece of research and methodology! Some severe issues need to be dealt with before the ranking comes anywhere near to being a useful tool. Makes me concerned about where else Wonkhe is getting its information from…

    1. I should clarify on behalf of Paul and Wonkhe that he is being entirely sarcastic and satirical. Neither Paul nor Wonkhe think that these rankings are a worthwhile piece of work.

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