Not again! Just when you thought it was safe to get on with rewriting every course in the curriculum and trying to make hand sanitiser come out of the hot taps, Policy Exchange has published another report on academic freedom to get stuck into.
It was, perhaps, a bit odd to see universities having to “demonstrate their commitment to academic freedom and free speech” as a condition of accessing bailout funding in the Department for Education’s restructuring regime. Does the coronavirus spread through snowflakes now?
It was even odder to see the Office for Students announce that it will issue regulatory guidance this autumn on its public interest governance principles relating to academic freedom and free speech “because these principles underpin high-quality higher education”, having spent three years insisting that it only cares about outcomes.
Now we know why. Universities Minister Michelle Donelan:
It is deeply concerning the extent to which students and academics with mainstream views are being silenced and discriminated against in our universities.”
Academic freedom: the extended directors’ cut
In November when Gavin Williamson’s Spad Iain Mansfield was briefly Head of Education at Policy Exchange, “Britain’s most influential think tank” published something called “Academic freedom in the UK” – a 9,300-word diatribe on academic freedom that got mixed up with freedom of speech, headlined on press-baiting polling that said right-wing students felt unpopular, and contained a raft of sometimes nonsensical policy recommendations for universities, government and civil society.
This, it turns out, was merely a trailer – whetting our appetite for a whopping 47,500-word version that says most of the same things in most of the same order in much the same way.
It matters because as my colleague David Kernohan pointed out on the site at the time, the rumour was that there was nearly legislation on this stuff in the Queen’s Speech – but for the intervention of former Universities Minister Chris Skidmore deciding that there were bigger priorities.
He’s gone now (to be on the Board of the UPP Foundation, no less) replaced with a much more “on message” minister – and you’ll remember that very shortly before lockdown in the aftermath of the Amber Rudd not-actually-no-platformed affair, a “source close to Gavin Williamson” was briefing the press about an 11-clause bill on this very subject.
Never let an 11-clause bill go to waste in a crisis, or whatever that phrase is.
Left wing remoaners
First up there are 14,000 words on the history and definition of academic freedom. There’s neither nothing particularly wrong with it, nor nothing I couldn’t argue with if I so wanted to – but reading it is much like being hectored at by a pub bore on the subject who wins their argument by droning on longer than you when you’re keen to get the last tube home.
Next, some data. Last time round students were the focus, but this time the press-baiting polling centres on academics. And you do get the mild impression that strenuous efforts have been made to ask the questions that will give the answers the authors want to see.
820 academics responded to YouGov’s poll, although only 484 of those were currently employed – and just under half of the sample (47%) teach in social sciences, humanities, arts, psychology or in education.
In this sample 53% identified as left, 35% as centrist, and 9% as right – which it says shows that UK academics are significantly more left-leaning today than before, with fewer than 20% voting for right-leaning parties, and about 75% voting for the Labour/Liberal Democrat/Green parties in 2017 and 2019. Much of this, it says, is explained by the association of advanced education and political preferences. Maybe Policy Exchange is in favour of contextual admissions for academic staff.
Most of the questions asked of academics in the survey are a treat I won’t spoil here (you can see the full cross tabs here), but whilst there’s little support for “dismissal campaigns” against colleagues, the report does manage to clickbait-conclude that 1 in 4 academics were willing to countenance campaigns against “controversial research”.
When you actually dig a bit, you see that this, in reality, refers to 1 in 4 social science and humanities academics willing to countenance campaigns against at least one of four areas of “controversial research”. And when you dig even further, you find that we’re not talking about research questions but highly implausible research conclusions, as in:
If a staff member in your institution did research showing that greater ethnic diversity leads to increased societal tension and poorer social outcomes, would you support or oppose efforts by students to let the staff member know that they should find work elsewhere?
Other examples were “research showing that the British empire did more good than harm”, “research showing that children do better when brought up two biological parents rather than by single or adoptive parents” and research “showing that having a higher share of women and ethnic minorities in organisations correlates with reduced organisational performance”.
One featured line of qualitative feedback surely qualifies into this year’s Didn’t Happen of the Year Awards:
A previous line manager had a large photo of Jeremy Corbyn on his desk. When I failed to approve (I said nothing) he had me removed from the programme despite very positive feedback.” – Centrist remainer.
Buried in the findings we discover that those on the right are more willing to discriminate against those on the left than the reverse (20% as against 15%) and that other results “reveal an important reservoir of support for academic freedom among staff at British universities.”
Nevertheless, “the minority may exert an outsized effect on the academic climate, restricting freedom”. It would have to really.
We also discover that (outrageously) people like hanging out socially with people like them – only 54% of academics said that they would feel comfortable “sitting next to a known Leave supporter at lunch”, but again a dig tells us that only 14% of remainers expressed discomfort, without either switching the question around or comparing to wider society.
The other “neither agree not disagree” third were probably either thinking “there hasn’t been anywhere for staff to sit and have lunch on our campus since 1996” or maybe “I haven’t actually had time to have lunch in this job since 1996.”
28% of this sample being uncomfortable sitting next to someone who advocates gender-critical views is probably much lower than most would guess, but their other killer fact is that “a third of academics would seek to avoid hiring a known Leave supporter”, and “between a third and a half of those reviewing a grant bid would mark it lower if it took a right-wing perspective”.
To get there the research with YouGov uses a “list experiment” which it says circumvents people’s tendency to conceal their true motives due to social pressure not to admit to discrimination. What it doesn’t do is address the fact that only 12% of the sample is currently in a position to do any hiring.
It does accept that academics do not discriminate more than other professions, nor does left discriminate more than right – but because of the small number of academics who identify as on the right, it argues that there is a structural discriminatory effect against them:
Importantly, this demonstrates that the “chilling effect”, whereby dissenting views are not stated publicly, occurs not just due to a fear of feeling uncomfortable. Rather, it is a rational response – particularly for younger academics – to a workplace in which expressing such views may have a negative impact on their careers.”
What all of this amounts to is that right wing or leave-inclined academics might be being discriminated against by not being hired by people in no position to hire them or by being avoided by people who disagree with them in their spare time. In other words, Policy Exchange has discovered that it’s cooler to be a left-wing remainer if you’re an academic mainly in the social sciences in HE when right wing parties keep banging on about shutting courses you teach on and when Brexit probably means you’ll lose loads of research funding.
So how might we address the plight of these plucky, right wing underdogs? How, dear reader, do we make being a right-wing social sciences academic more… cool?
There’s a long, long section on the law that predictably overcooks “freedom to” (speak) and undercooks “freedom from” (harassment and harm) and then eventually – 35,000 words in – we get to some proposals. They’re quite something, and if this is, in effect, the briefing document for that mooted 11-clause bill, we should all be very afraid.
The proposals address two sorts of issues in two sorts of ways. The first is attempts to “penalise” someone’s speech not by rebutting the arguments, but by “campaigning” – to have them sacked, or by seeking to disrupt an event or have it cancelled. The practicalities of drawing this neat distinction are glossed quickly.
To address this sort of thing – without ever really acknowledging the preposterousness of suggesting rules, in the name of freedom, that would remove students’ and academics’ right to campaign – we get a new Director for Academic Freedom on the OfS board whose appointment process and role is framed like the Director of Fair Access, only for the other side of the culture wars. Fight! Fight!
They would have the “capacity and responsibility for individual redress” – OIA will be thrilled that it has dodged this particular bullet, because unlike the rest of OfS, the proposal explicitly wants this post to act as an ombudsperson in individual complaints. Great news! An HE ombudsperson that will look at academic judgement after all!
Next, the employment tribunals and courts would have jurisdiction to determine whether academic freedoms have been violated for individuals or groups. The proposals never really talk about how a university is supposed to stop individuals across the student body from campaigning in a way that might “restrict” academic freedoms in the way described – but academic staff would somehow win an employment tribunal if it happened.
Given right now we can’t figure out how to stop a student hosting a houseparty in a lockdown, I’d chalk this one up as “optimistic”.
Defend the union
Highly amusingly, there’s even an alternative to that Director proposal included, which I’m going to call the Toby Young proposal:
Authorise the Director for Academic Freedom at the OfS to give legal assistance to individuals who allege that their academic freedom or freedom of speech has been violated. This legal assistance would include the ability to provide or arrange for the provision of legal advice, legal representation, facilities for the settlement of a dispute, or any other form of assistance.
We also get some legal shenanigans designed to tip that “freedom to” (speak) v “freedom from” (harassment and harm) balance a bit towards “freedom to”, and a proposal to being students’ unions directly under the purview of the Education Act 1986 without ever mentioning who would do the enforcement. OfS will not be keen to be creating a register of SUs, and the Charity Commission thinks it’s on top of this one already.
The second set of issues is what it calls a “softer focus” problem, framed as “political discrimination” and to be dealt with through in the same way that all other forms of discrimination are in the sector – education, training, charters, “whole institution” commitments and even league tables.
This 15,000 word set of additional stuff is amazing – it’s like the authors have gathered every single theory of change ever tried in the sector, and then run academic freedom through it. There’s an expansion of the National Student Survey to include questions designed to elicit students’ experience of political discrimination, proposed amendments to the big league tables to include an academic freedom “indicator”, a seed-funded Academic Freedom charter organisation on the same model as Athena Swan, and an Academic Freedom Champion in every university, who would report directly to the Vice-Chancellor, with support staff as appropriate.
The good news for opponents of these proposals is that decades of this has hardly made universities less racist, sexist, disablist or homophobic – so I’m doubtful it’ll have the desired effect here either. Give it a decade and the Taxpayer’s Alliance will be moaning about the waste.
So, the best part of 50,000 words later – will any of this make a difference? That all depends, really. There is something genuinely chilling about laws trying to make being a right wing sociologist more cool, or banning student protest in the name of freedom. But I’d be surprised if all this got that far.
The debate that is coming over both the report and what is bound to be an impending bill will be as tortuous and fact-free as it always is. Are there bigger problems in society or the sector right now? Yes, there are. Will that matter? No, it won’t.
There’s definitely something strangely analogue-in-a-digital-age about the proposals – supposing as they do that a long-winded way of describing “cancel culture” can be meaningfully controlled via restrictions on institutions like universities or students unions. Policy Exchange can debate over 1,000 words whether an SU should conform to “public norms” ‘til it’s blue in the face – the rest of the world has worked out that it’s the decentralised nature of this new kind of collective accountability that makes it so powerful on the one hand, or principal-Skinner style terrifying on the other.
Richard Brabner puts all of this really well – albeit from a different perspective to mine – over on HEPI’s blog. The interaction between “new” social media and “old” institutional culture is pretty tricky, particularly if the “old” institutional culture is supposed to offer structured debate and diversity in viewpoints. Whether university employers should expect a level of civility in professional conduct on public social media channels, and whether universities could or should expect similar from their enrolled students is an interesting question. For all of Policy Exchange’s words, you’ll struggle to find arguments with this level of subtlety or sophistication in the text.
And if you are one of those people that think there is a real problem with the way Trans issues are handled in academia right now – I absolutely promise you that the solution is probably not in here.
In the end, whether we get that 11-line bill or not, whatever happens next will probably in the long term mean that some more forms will have to be filled in, some more boxes will have to be ticked, and everyone will get on with their lives. Most of us, if we have the chance, will still have lunch with people we disagree with (“god, if only right now”), most sociologists will vote Labour, and most students will still lean to the left and move to the right when they (if they ever) buy a house or get hitched.
And then the debate will reappear again in thirty years. Like it always does.