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No platform? No worries! The case against free speech hysteria

As a new HE minister takes charge in Westminster, Ant Bagshaw argues that there are more important things for him to talk about than free speech.
This article is more than 4 years old

Ant Bagshaw is Partnerships Director at OES UK

Imagine that you’ve just been made Minister for Higher Education. And imagine that your predecessor had been able to generate favourable headlines (for him, at least initially) by exclaiming horror at snowflake students banning speakers from university campuses.

What would you do? You could win over the right of your party with more pronouncements of the same type. Or you could focus on issues for which there’s a solid evidential basis. It’s a tricky choice.

The case against the free speech hysteria

“Freedom of speech within the law is the cornerstone of higher education.” So begins “Box D” in the OfS consultation on the regulatory framework for English higher education. The topic is such a cornerstone of the system that the terms “free speech” and “freedom of speech” don’t appear in either the Green Paper of 2015 or the White Paper of 2016. The cornerstone, maybe, but not important enough to make the cut for either of the key consultation documents on the future of the sector.

It’s possible that there is a spate of free-speech-deniers roaming the corridors of universities preventing others from speaking their minds. It’s also possible that there is a hidden underground network which prevents speakers from having a platform to share their views.

These are possible, but where’s the evidence? There’s an irony to sharing a few stories – all from some time ago – of individuals who very clearly have no trouble in obtaining a platform for their views. At a recent hearing of the parliamentary Joint Human Rights Committee, former NUS president Wes Streeting was clear that “no platform” – as an NUS policy – refers only to speakers with confirmed racist or fascist views from one of six organisations.

There’s a big difference between this and a controversial speaker who may need additional security for an event.

If you spend some time reading Box D (hint: don’t bother if you’re easily riled by policy waffle), you’ll see that the proposals are for universities to obey the law. And if they wouldn’t mind awfully obeying the (existing) law a bit more publicly that would be great.

Quite how OfS believes the following is beyond this wonk: “As a result of the changes we propose in this consultation, our higher education will be second to none in ensuring that students can take part in rigorous, open debate and our providers will be the home of innovative thought.” Phew, you’ll be glad that everyone has been saved from the stale debate-free environments we have today. Roll on April 1st.

If not free speech, then what?

This is not the space in which a case is made for further discussion of vice chancellors’ pay. Frankly, with the prospect of (further) rounds of redundancies, course and campus closures, and budget cuts at universities up and down the land, there are more important things to talk about. For many universities, the squeeze on undergraduates could mean the need for drastic cuts, or in extremis closing the doors completely.

As minister, you could talk that up as the positive impact of the marketplace, but you might consider finding more nuanced ways of explaining major job losses and course closures in higher education cold spots.

If you’re Minister for Higher Education then you’re responsible for the science and innovation brief as well as the student side of things. Maybe you should talk about research funding, infrastructure and global competitiveness. It might even be the time to explain quite how the UK’s universities are expected to compete with their peers for talented academics in the face of a hostile immigration regime. Or, you know, Brexit.

If financial sustainability and research excellence aren’t your thing, why not talk about equality and diversity? Widening participation and access? The role of universities as essential to public services or local civic identity?

The S word

It’s clear that Spiked’s free speech ranking and traffic light system is bogus pseudo-journalism of the worst kind, as shown previously here by Paul Greatrix and more recently Jim Dickinson. We receive complaints every time we mention Spiked in an email briefing. However, although we (along with most of the sector) tend to disagree with their “analysis”, the way the rankings have largely created, and continue to feed, the storm currently blowing around free speech in UK universities means that we cannot ignore them.

The way in which sections of the media quote the rankings as fact has had a powerful impact on the shape of the debate – and increasingly on policy itself.

But even if there are individual cases of invitations withdrawn or events disrupted, that doesn’t mean that there’s an epidemic that needs to be contained. With a limited amount of time and energy, perhaps the minister ought to focus on policies for which there’s the greatest benefit. Just a thought.

There are more important issues that the higher education sector must face, and the sector needs its champions. It does need challenge, but a genuinely constructive debate wouldn’t go amiss.

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