The minister’s letter of note hints at a threat to autonomy

Paul Greatrix reads Michelle Donelan's letter to vice chancellors on free speech and "external benchmarking programmes" like the Race Equality Charter

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

Universities in England have this week received a rather surprising letter from the Minister for Higher and Further Education.

It is of course not uncommon for Ministers to write to universities and regulators to set out their expectations of how institutions should, in their view behave, and what their priorities should be in return for all that lovely public money being pushed their way (you can see a vital and incomplete historical collection of these here on Wonkhe).

Most of the previous letters referred to here tend to be a lot longer than this one. Indeed most of this Minister’s letters during the pandemic period, to vice chancellors, to students (that really is a heck of a mail merge) or to the Office for Students are notable for their brevity, with most coming in at two to three pages long.

Why write?

Why do Ministers write letters then? Well, the biggest frustration for any Minister in this role is that the universities, which they are looking to do their bidding, despite many rounds of legislation over the years (and most recently via the Higher Education and Research Act 2017), still remain resolutely autonomous in large part. Instruction is therefore rather difficult.

Even with the odd set piece speech, an intervention or two in the House and the occasional ghosted column in the Sunday papers it is quite difficult for a Minister to pull any levers at all to get universities to actually do things. Whilst you can write a foreword and put your name to a wilfully contrary and boldly under-researched think tank report, or try to interest a radio or TV programme in the key issues, neither of these is likely to gain much purchase in the target bodies themselves, universities.

As a last resort you could consider trying to push another piece of legislation through but this is inevitably going to be very time-consuming and prone to amendment and the intervention of other priorities and events.

Instead of all of these the traditional letter then, punchy and pointed, can be a very useful device for seeking to steer universities without actually formally directing them through legislation or through strings attached to funding. A letter, with a proper letterhead and a real or even an e-signature, can have real impact as it is hard for the recipient to avoid and can include more interesting phraseology than your common or garden press release – so can often be much more quotable. But there are a lot of letters about so to really stand out though from the run of the mill of such missives is a difficult trick to pull. This one is rather special and the Minister has certainly ensured that it will come top of the pile of letters to remember in the years ahead.

The spoils of war

Only a few days old, this latest effort already feels like a culture wars artefact. When future students of higher education are combing through the detritus left behind on the online battlefield for items to investigate they will happen across this letter and hold it up as an example of one particularly bold assault on the gates of university autonomy. Which is, possibly, more than a little surprising given that it purports to be a statement primarily in support of free speech. Indeed the file name of the note as circulated is “Letter Regarding Free Speech and External Assurance Schemes.”

But hang on I hear you say, it’s only just over a page long, barely six paragraphs, not many more than 600 words, how action-packed can this letter actually be?

I’m glad you asked. First off, it reminds us of the vital and brilliant nature of the free speech legislation currently working its way through Parliament. The letter assumes that this new law will pass, is wholly necessary and will deliver the free speech rules which will address what the Minister describes as a:

growing concern that a ‘chilling effect’ on university campuses leaves students, staff and academics unable to freely express their lawful views without fear of repercussion.”

In the context of this as yet unfinished legislation essentially the Minister is seeking to persuade universities to consider their ongoing engagement with AdvanceHE and in particular its Race Equality Charter, and other similar schemes. While talking the language of “bringing this matter to your attention” and inviting “careful consideration” of the issues and recognising that universities are “autonomous institutions” the letter nevertheless succeeds in slapping a huge hazard sign on all of this by including an ominous quote from the Interim CEO of the OfS in reminding us all that universities should “be thinking carefully and independently about their free speech duty when signing up to these sort of schemes.”

Direction and mis-direction

Directing universities, in the nicest possible way (it really is “your” choice), to divest themselves of the sector agency they have helped to found and reverse all of the positive steps AdvanceHE and universities have taken to address issues around race equality and EDI is certainly a bold move. What distinguishes this approach from many other letters from Ministers to universities is that it seeks to impose its view by on the one hand seemingly recognising and acknowledging university autonomy and suggesting that we might like to consider our position while holding a rather large sledgehammer in the other.

The general response of the sector to the Minister’s letters may well be to ignore it. But the side effects might interestingly turn out to be the opposite of that intended. Indeed it would not be unsurprising if we saw universities accelerating their Race Equality Charter plans and a noticeable growth in support (and extra subs) for Advance HE.

Of course at least some of the efficiency concerns articulated by the Minister could be addressed by dropping the new free speech legislation. Peer after peer pointed out yesterday that the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is going to be costly, bureaucratic, and will not achieve what it aims to do in terms of protecting and promoting free speech. There are also more than a few other costly regulatory measures the elimination of which would deliver a great deal more efficiency than the elimination of these troublesome external assurance schemes.

So, this particular letter represents a novel attempt by the Minister to pull a very big lever – or wield a large blunt instrument – and persuade universities to act. It will undoubtedly be regarded as something of a landmark communication in years to come.

4 responses to “The minister’s letter of note hints at a threat to autonomy

  1. I agree that the minister is challenging the autonomy of universities, as institutions, here. But via the REC and Stonewall university managers are challenging the autonomy of academics and students – universities as communities of scholars. It is becoming common for staff / students to be ‘trained’ in the contested idea of decolonialism, white privilege and gender theory, as if these are norms that all should buy into. That undercuts academic freedom, and necessitates some sort of response to preserve it. The solution would be for wonks / uni managers to affirm free speech, and drop the partisan advice from the well remunerated Stonewall and Advance HE bureaucracy. Until they do that, Donelan has a good point.

    1. Equally academic freedom doesn’t mean that special snowflake academics get to sound off about anything they feel like without anyone else being able to challenge and criticise. Academic freedom and freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences for a nomenklatura class of people who happen to hold certain jobs in certain organisations, or at least it shouldn’t be in a functioning democracy.

      If some people don’t want to associate with those whose views they find repellent, that is also a vital democratic freedom that has advantages and consequences whoever does it.

  2. So much confusion over ‘free speech’ and ‘academic freedom’. The former is a right possessed by all citizens to express their views providing they do so within the Law (eg not using inciting, defamatory, discriminatory or harassing language) – and often a soap-box is involved. The latter is a guild privilege possessed by those seeking truth within academe, provided they are doing that within the norms of academic discourse – a lectern rather than a soap-box is required. Academic freedom on campus can be threatened by an assumption that, if its practice by X is claimed to be causing ‘offence’ and ‘harm’ to Y, then the free speech rights of Y can trump the academic freedom of X. The duty of University ‘management’ is to defend X. Similarly, where A in the name of free speech demands that B, also exercising free speech rights, on the campus, be silenced, the duty of the University is to uphold the right of B to exercise his/her free speech rights no matter that A is feeling ‘offended’ and ‘harmed’ (providing A is not being defamed, harassed, or discriminated against as unlawful behaviour on the part of B).

  3. This is paranoid nonsense: “ It is becoming common for staff / students to be ‘trained’ in the contested idea of decolonialism, white privilege and gender theory, as if these are norms that all should buy into.”

    Do you have any evidence to back up this claim?

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