Research and freedom of speech: a tale of unintended consequences

Conflating debates on academic freedom and freedom of speech on campus is not always helpful. James Coe wonders why the Office for Students is suddenly regulating research.

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

I am already aware that freedom of speech and academic freedom are two separate issues.

Before we enter the circular debate on the different between the two, the argument usually goes that the former is a more nebulous concept which has general legal protections and responsibilities, while the latter is a specific academic protection within the Education Act which allows researchers to pursue things which might be unpopular, unfashionable, or controversial.

But academic freedom is often stretched to mean a universal right to pronounce on lots of topics. After all, there is no clear beginning and end to intellectual enquiry.

There are numerous arguments on the erosion of academic freedom. I’m not going to repeat the arguments of people who want to say things on campus without being challenged. That isn’t academic freedom and it is barely freedom of speech. UCU offers some thoughtful reflections that a mixture of metrics, short-term contracts, and institutional governance, is building up into a major academic freedom problem. And there’s a separate debate as to whether universities are protecting academic freedom as a moral duty, and whether there is a sufficient legal framework to protect academic freedom.

The face of the bill

The Government’s view is that Freedom of Speech can be protected through legislation. The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech Bill) introduces a raft of requirements on universities, regulators, and students’ unions, to promote freedom of speech. It is not clear what this legislation will achieve practically but politically it gives an opportunity for Ministers to dive into the tepid pools of the culture wars over and over again. Unfortunately, translating cultural fascinations into legislative action leads to bad policy.

One of the amendments to the Bill at report stage sets out that the Office for Students must monitor overseas gifts to universities. This includes donations, research grants, research contracts, and educational and commercial partnerships. This means that universities will have to collate this information, reportedly at a threshold above £75,000, excluding some select countries. It has been suggested exempt countries will be those within the EU or NATO, or those listed in the Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS). The ATAS scheme covers the EU, European Economic Area (EEA), Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland and the United States of America. NATO includes 30 countries and additional to this list is Canada, Iceland, Turkey, Albania, North Macedonia and Montenegro.

Listening to the debate made it clear that this amendment is targeted at China – most obviously concerning undue influence from institutes, and breaches of export controls. The legislation would also cover countries that the UK are already committed to working with through the Newton Fund – including most of Asia, Africa, and South America. It cover Israel (who currently spends close to 5 per cent of GDP on research), and countries like India which are strategically important for future research collaborations. Greeting partners with a new monitoring regime is hardly a warm welcome to Global Britain, especially where UK research has already benefitted so much from being embedded in and supported by international projects, programmes, and networks.

Not this again

An amendment like this, in a Bill which is largely about securing freedom of speech, is odd – to say the least. There’s no sense that academics are being forced to work with nations they don’t want to work with, there is no outcry concerning research collaborations, and I can’t recall many instances of academics not being allowed to set up collaborations. There might be an argument that these measures might improve national security but this isn’t what the Bill is about. If we are talking about undue influence on the work of universities then that protection already exists, ironically enough, through academic freedom. Researchers are not obliged to set up partnerships where they do not wish to.

Even if we pretend this isn’t about politics the amendment won’t actually improve national security. I’m sympathetic to the idea that universities are publicly funded and therefore should be transparent with who they work with. However, this isn’t the intention of this bill. It assumes that compiling a big list of incoming grants above £75,000 will somehow make universities in England safe from undue influence. As far as I can tell, there has been zero thought into how the appropriateness of these relationships will be assessed, on what grounds interventions may be made, who gets to decide what is or isn’t material, how universities will manage this process, or simply how a big spreadsheet can solve the problems of international security in a globalised research economy. I’ve got even less idea why the Office for Students should be the correct body to make these judgements.

For good measure this new duty would also apply to overseas investment in students’ unions. I could be wrong, but as far as I am aware there is no sign of a freedom of speech crisis brought about by overseas donations to students’ unions. In fact, there are likely to be so few of these donations, if indeed there are any above the proposed £75,000 threshold, as to make this clause redundant. The one thing it could be used for is signalling that the present government still don’t like students’ unions very much.

Bad politics, bad policy

This is a minor point but it’s an important one – as the whole thing just makes the issues of research security seem somehow trivial. There is extensive work already going on in universities on vetting donations, abiding by research controls, and engaging with government on this very issue. This clause does nothing to help. There is no clarity on how commercial sensitivities can be protected. There is no indication of how universities should assess if a grant is interfering with freedom of speech. And there is no sense of what the Office for Students might do in such instances. Universities need guidance, not telling off.

This amendment effectively suggest that if universities report things that are happening then anything the government doesn’t like can be regulated out of existence. It’s an absurd view of the world which assumes that universities are disinterested – or ignorant to the risks of working with international partners. If nothing else, surely adding more bureaucracy, reporting, and regulation, will only mean universities spend more time on filling out forms rather than engaging in the work of assessing the impacts of overseas funding.

The Centre for the Protection for National Infrastructure already runs programmes, provides advice, and checklists for academics working with overseas collaborators. There is a world where universities are given resources to improve and share their approach to partnerships and export controls, coupled with investment in infrastructure programmes, with evaluation and monitoring. Think of an OfS challenge fund for researching safely in the age of global collaborations.

But instead we get an entirely politically motivated policy amendment which has zero chance of making researchers or the UK safer and will do even less than zero for academic freedom.

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