The Free Speech University Rankings stage a dramatic Christmas comeback

An exercise in assessing the culture (wars) on campus has been revived for Christmas 2020. Jim Dickinson sorts the reds from the greens.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Well this is a surprise. Like a cancelled sitcom picked up by another network for a fifth season, the Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR) have staged a dramatic comeback – at their new home, Civitas.

Taken at face value, it’s not good news. 48 of the universities analysed – including “the three highest ranked UK universities” – are performing “badly” on free speech, and so the government should resolve the issues by a “change of policy and legislation.”

Over half of all universities experienced a “cancel culture” of open letters or petitions which pushed for the restriction of views of staff, students or visiting speakers on campus, and 50 of the 137 universities experienced incidents that led to demands for censorship of speech or written material due to social media activism.

And 98 of the 137 universities have taken steps to introduce a documented policy on free speech/expression that has itself imposed a restrictive set of conditions on free speech.

Naturally, the report is all over the news. But what does this latest salvo in the culture wars tell us?

The story so far

If you’re not familiar with the FSUR, it was an annual analysis of campus censorship published by Revolutionary Communist Party overhang Spiked! between 2015 and 2018, which took some local policy analysis, mixed in some media stories and generated a traffic light on censorship for each institution.

Rankings fan Paul Greatrix regularly reflected on it, Emran Mian (who spent a spell running HE and FE at DfE) was more of a fan, and I had a go at locating the Spiked! agenda in a bit of historical context.

Adapting things like scores and rankings from the university league table industry to advance a libertarian argument about campus censorship wasn’t actually Spiked!’s idea – the project was adapted from an equivalent exercise run by something called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a non-profit group founded in 1999 that focuses on protecting free speech rights on college campuses in the United States. It’s been taking up campaigns on trigger warnings, cancel culture and external speakers for over a decade now – this report on Inside Higher Ed on campus “climate” might feel quite familiar, for example.

If you’re not familiar with Civitas, ConHome tells us that it started life as the Health and Welfare Unit of the Institute of Economic Affairs, but because libertarian elements within the IEA disapproved of the focus on non-narrowly economic issues, it separated from it in order to grow.

And you may not be familiar with the project’s sponsors – the Nigel Vinson charitable trust. Vinson is a Conservative peer, one of a handful of known donors to the UK climate science denial group the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), and himself co-founded the Centre for Policy Studies, an opaque free-market British think tank.

Vinson is also a prominent funder the IEA, a member of the advisory council for the pro-Brexit campaign group Business for Britain (founded by Matthew Elliott, former Chief Executive of the Taxpayers’ Alliance), and since 2013 has been patron of The Freedom Association, a libertarian pressure group which sparked controversy in the eighties for campaigning against boycotts of apartheid-era South Africa.

The free speech excellence framework

So what we have here is an analysis of over three years of campus censorship (2017- 2020), examining the policies and actions of 137 universities (including their students’ unions) to provide what it calls a “detailed understanding” of the state of free speech across UK academia.

To get there, Civitas has assessed universities on 22 variables, including controversies surrounding free speech censorship on or near campus; the role of external pressure group involvement and student societies in curbing free speech; the restrictive nature of any internal policy on free speech on free speech itself; curbs on free speech listed in harassment policies; and the number of offensive “speech acts” listed in student and staff Codes of Conduct.

The number of restrictions imposed by specific university actions and policies are then collated and aggregated into an overall censorship score for each university. And each score is then provided with a category:

  • Universities which are graded between 1 and 150 fall into the “most friendly” or “green” category;
  • Those scoring between 151 and 300 fall into a “moderately restrictive” or “amber” category, and;
  • Those scoring 301 or more come under the “most restrictive”, or “red” category.

In other words, it’s a teaching excellence framework for libertarians that worry a lot about universities – although to be fair at least the TEF uses real metrics and ones based on actual outcomes – and like its predecessors confuses “academic freedom” with “freedom of speech”, confuses “freedom of speech” with lots of other sorts of behaviours, and ruins its shreds of credibility by starting out with an argument on freedom of speech, and ending up sounding like a harasser’s charter.

Under the surface

The report published on top of its analysis is full of press friendly statistics, like:

Over half (55%) of all universities experienced a “cancel culture” of open letters or petitions which pushed for the restriction of views of staff, students or visiting speakers on campus.

Naturally, when you dig in you find that half of universities experiencing a “cancel culture” turns out to be half of universities having at least one (and more often than not, only one) incident over three years of students exercising their free speech rights to object to someone.

And then when you get into the underpinning spreadsheet, things get really remarkable. A set of initial scores is calculated by counting “incidents” that fall into these categories (not my capitals):

  • GENERAL reported controversies & case studies on or near campus
  • SPECIFIC reported transphobic controversies & case studies on or near campus
  • SPECIFIC reported Islamophobic Controversies & case studies on or near campus
  • External pressure group involvement (reported)
  • Allegations of occupational dismissals/suspensions
  • Presence of petitions / open letters
  • Pressure through university society group (reported)
  • Social networking components
  • Instances of disinvitation/ no platforming
  • Event cancellations/ disinvitation of EXTERNAL speaker due directly to Prevent (counter-terror) legislation duties
  • Radical students or student societies on campus prevented from speaking INTERNALLY among students due to Prevent guidance
  • Reported instances of banned individuals/organisations
  • Free speech campaign groups present

What we don’t have, of course, is links to these things – so even where, for example, there’s a count of “reported instances of banned individuals/organisations,” we can’t check to see if that’s an actual ban or (for example) someone not a getting room booking form in on time and then claiming that that represents censorship.

The methodology analysing “restrictive university policies” on free speech is even more hair-raising. To get a score here, Civitas analyses policies on free speech/expression, bullying and harassment policies that defining offensive speech, IT regulations referring to offense and equal opportunities policies mentioning offensive speech. It also picks up “safe space” policies, unacceptable “speech acts” listed in student and staff codes of conduct, and the total number general free speech restrictions in university policies.

You don’t have to get very far into the spreadsheet to see problems with what gets points. Right at the top, the University of Liverpool is under fire for 96 restrictions (a number that later gets used in the university’s score):

“Will not tolerate bullying / Harassment / Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 / Bullying is offensive / Intimidating / Malicious / Insulting behaviour / Abuse of / Misuse of power / Experienced as undermining / Humiliating / Verbal threats / Intimidation / Unjustified persistent negative comments / Or criticisms / Humiliating someone in front of others / Offensive or/ Abusive personal remarks / Threatening / Abusive comments / Made by e-mail / Or through internet forums / Setting unreasonable or / Unattainable targets / Ostracism / Picking on one person for criticism when there is a common problem / Making false allegations / Shouting at people in order to get things done / Ageist / Disability related / Homophobic / Racist / Sexist / Transphobic / Any other such behaviour / Harassment is unwanted Verbal / Non-verbal conduct / Which many violate dignity / Create an intimidating / Hostile / Degrading / Humiliating / Offensive environment / Interferes with learning/working/social environment / Use of threatening / Abusive / Insulting words/behaviour / Disorderly behaviour / Displaying visible representation which is threatening / Abusive / Insulting / Likely to cause harassment / Alarm / Distress / Sexual harassment / Offensive remarks / Personal comments / Inappropriate humour / Innuendo / Unwelcome advances / Unwanted comments on dress / Spreading malicious gossip / Intrusive questioning / About marital status / Gender identity / Sexual orientation / Ethnic origin / Religion / Culture / Or disability / Intrusion by pestering / Unwanted telephone calls / Emails / Or texts / Circulation of offensive / Sensitive photographs / Offensive literature / Graffiti / Pinups / Whistling / Other sexually suggestive gestures / Conduct which causes offence will become harassment / if the conduct continues after the recipient has made it clear that such behaviour is unacceptable / A single incident can be harassment if it is sufficiently serious / Equality Act 2010 / Discrimination on grounds of age / Disability / Health condition / Gender reassignment / Gender identity / Racial grounds / Religion/belief / Sex based / Sexual in nature / Sexual orientation / Harassment by association to someone based on protected characteristic.

There’s a specific focus in the excel sheet on “transgender identity” where, again Liverpool picks up a censorship score for:

Discrimination because of absence from work due to sickness relating to gender reassignment / absence due to injury relating to gender reassignment / any other reason for absence relating to gender reassignment.

Does this help?

There may well be kernels of truth in the excel spreadsheet, but what’s exhausting about it all is the lack of any attempt at understanding or interrogating the tensions in play – and in some cases in the report, outright dismissal of them – even when they are legal responsibilities.

There are other big stories in the news about campus culture on the day I’m writing this that I can’t help thinking matter. The Community Security Trust has found 123 anti-semitic incidents on campus affecting Jewish students, academics and student bodies over past two years. A set of university rugby players are being investigated over claims they challenged members to source nude snaps of girls – so they could rate them. A university is under fire for allowing a student who admitted to sexual misconduct to stay on campus. Over 400 people have signed a petition demanding a university apologise for historical involvement in “gay conversion therapy”.

What exercises like the Civitas one never do is highlight the often uncomfortable events, debates and encounters that are facilitated by universities and their students’ unions. They never spot that in many cases the policies referred to aren’t just legal obligations, but methods that ensure that students who otherwise would never have been involved in robust debate feel able to get involved. They never notice that the students and staff that these policies target both experience discrimination and harassment in their university, and often experience serious achievement and attainment gaps  And they never seem to reconcile that many of the behaviours analysed little to do with debating challenging ideas, but outright discrimination and harassment.

As Emran Mian charitably pointed out on the site when he looked at the FSUR, for most of our readers most of the actions that pick up points seem fair enough:

Clearly what the university and the students’ union are trying to do is to act on behalf of students to create an environment where as many people as possible feel free to think, act and learn. In particular perhaps, they are acting on behalf of students with less power. In that sense, you might also want to flip the ratings: the institutions ranked red might be the institutions that have thought most deeply about creating a forum for the free exchange of ideas. By contrast those who are ranked green might not have sufficient concern for the interests of students with less power. If you come from a minority or excluded group, the green institutions might be the ones to avoid.

There isn’t any doubt that sometimes the way in which universities and students’ unions struggle to balance competing responsibilities of freedom from harm and freedom to speak can cause controversy. Nor is there doubt that when you try to make bigots stop oppressing others, you can end up causing those with some legitimate controversial views to feel discomfort.

But what would help would be serious research that neither defensively dismisses the problem out of hand nor pretends that campus censorship is somehow rife because a newspaper says it is – work that tries to get under the skin of the issue, assumes good faith on the part of universities and students’ unions, and tries to offer support. This isn’t it.

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