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The sector should resist calls to junk work on race and racism

As Gavin Williamson warns of a "chilling effect" on campus, Jim Dickinson finds plenty of chilling stuff buried in the government's free speech proposals.
This article is more than 3 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

You’ll recall that the Sunday papers’ preview of Gavin Williamson’s free speech on campus proposals was coupled with news of concern at senior levels in the government over “attempts to rewrite Britain’s past”.

The Telegraph reports that Oliver Dowden, Culture Secretary, has invited the leaders of 25 of the country’s leading heritage bodies and charities to a meeting on February 23 to tell them “to defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”.

Universities minister Michelle Donelan was in full support on Radio 4’s Any Questions:

I stand by my view that history should be taught warts and all and that’s how we learn. That’s how we progress as a society from our mistakes. The past has happened. We can’t rewrite the past.”

It’s not immediately clear what her predecessor Chris Skidmore was doing with his new book on Richard III a couple of years ago if it wasn’t “rewriting the past”, but to be fair to Donelan there is evidence of public support for her position.

Rewriting history?

Some polling for Policy Exchange’s “History Matters” project says that two thirds of people say judging our past with today’s values is mistaken, that there is “rock bottom” support for removing historical statues, and that three quarters of people say that we need to protect statues from “violent removal”.

The Dowden summit is an interesting example of Policy Exchange’s influence – although we all need to be wary about “editing” the past. When you delve a little deeper into the fieldwork from last June 2020, you find a question that receives somewhat less attention in the “History Matters” press release:

The National Trust cares for buildings, places, spaces and collections on behalf of the nation, and many have direct and indirect links to slavery and colonialism. Do you think it should or should not do more to educate visitors about this aspect of history?

Yes – it should 76%. No – it should not 13%. Don’t know – 11%

Just before Christmas, the chair of the “Common Sense Group” of MPs John Hayes said “It is time for the National Trust to stop patronising, preaching and posturing and to get on with their core function of protecting our heritage”. The National Trust will doubtless be using Policy Exchange’s polling at the summit to defend its Interim Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery.

History matters

Much of the government’s policy paper on free speech on campus was based on analysis and recommendations from a couple of Policy Exchange reports, the first of which contained some polling on student attitudes to “No Platforming”.

Noting the famous Germaine Greer incident at Cardiff in 2015, PX asked students whether “the university should have stepped in to overrule the anti-Greer campaigners and guaranteed Greer the right to speak”, without mentioning that the university… er… did step in to overrule the anti-Greer campaigners, and that she did speak.

Someone noticing that even prompted Policy Exchange to quietly edit its 2019 report to note that Greer, in fact spoke. Don’t you just hate it when people try to rewrite history? The past has happened. We can’t rewrite the past.

This was all good knockabout fun. But there’s another bit of history-rewriting that we ought to be concerned about in the campus free speech paper that’s altogether more sinister – and returns us again to attempts to discourage active anti-racism work.

Student stasi

There’s a line in Gavin Williamson’s foreword to Higher education: free speech and academic freedom in which he says that “schemes have been established in which students are paid to report others for perceived offences”. Come again?

You might recall that back in 2019, the Equality and Human Rights Commission launched its inquiry into racial harassment in publicly funded universities in Britain to examine staff and students’ experiences of racial harassment and the effect they have on students’ education, careers and wellbeing.

It was a sobering analysis with lots of helpful recommendations on everything from deepening understanding of microaggressions to rolling out bystander training – and lots of it has subsequently been taken up by Universities UK’s work on racial harassment.

A few months after the report came out, as part of its race equality strategy Sheffield University launched work that involved working with its SU to create new roles to help students develop skills to consider the impact of subtle but offensive comments directed at black, Asian and minority ethnic people.

The idea was that student “champions” would lead training sessions on racial harassment, climate and microaggressions for students across campus (ie clubs and societies) and halls.

But the local Tab wasn’t happy – and the rest is (a re-write of) history. The Telegraph asked the author to pen an op-ed. Spiked! jumped on, accusing the university of turning students into a “woke Stasi”. Columns were filled with endless outrage. And even Policy Exchange’s then Head of Education, Skills, Science and Innovation had a view:

The rest is history

Mansfield is now Williamson’s SpAD, who we can assume still holds similar misconceptions. The day after the DfE policy paper was launched, Williamson wrote to VCs drawing their attention to a set of government “expectations” at Annex B, which set out best practices which he believes all registered higher education providers should ideally be ensuring they are in accordance with.

“In advance of legislation” (or things like getting this past the OfS board, or basic scrutiny or consultation) he urges universities to review their existing internal practices against these expectations and make changes where necessary.

They include a warning that providers should not “encourage students to inform upon other students for lawful free speech”, and nor should they “pay, or otherwise reward, students for doing so”. And they also include a warning that universities should not “seek to impose” what he calls “contested political ideologies” that are associated with a particular political party or view, such as “decolonising the curriculum”.

They are, through a rewrite of history, a fairly basic attempt to have “chilling effect” impact on UK universities’ race equity work – and to rob university senates and academic boards of their autonomy.

The danger is that less confident university senior teams than Sheffield’s will look at their plans – with positive project work on harassment, curriculum decolonisation, bystander training and the like – and decide to dial down the strategic and financial prioritisation of work on race as a result.

In other words – if ever there was a time for the higher education sector to defend its autonomy, it’s now. All of those reports on race and racism say that public, visible leadership is required. If not now, when? And if not by us, then by whom?

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