It says here that Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson has given universities a “final warning” on free speech.

That’s the surprising headline that accompanies an op-ed on free speech (behind a paywall) from Gavin Williamson in the Times, entitled “If universities can’t defend free speech, the government will”. It’s a surprise because in this feverish pre-reshfulle period we were led to believe that ministers were being told that they would be appointed on the basis of “who is best able to deliver” rather than those who work on “building up a profile in the media”.

By any chalk, if this indeed a “real” issue in higher education, this is a government which has failed to deliver on it. When he was the minister, Jo Johnson spent much of his tenure talking about the way his tough new regulator would tackle it with clampdowns, crackdowns, fines and so on. Sam Gyimah picked up the baton and ran, famously using a speech where he claimed that the issue was not some “right wing conspiracy that someone cooked up” to cook up what turned out to be, in fact, a right wing conspiracy.

Back then it was all about “no platforming”, “trigger warnings” and “fancy dress parties”, but the issue shapeshifts. Sam called a round table on the issue where the EHRC pledged to write up some guidance, and his successor Chris Skidmore launched it this time last year – but apparently it hasn’t worked. As Williamson notes in his piece,

A year ago new guidance on free speech at university was published. It’s fair to say this guidance hasn’t yet put a stop to concerns, which is why the Conservative Party committed to “strengthen academic freedom and free speech” in our recent manifesto.

The Times notes that that manifesto pledge was not in the Queen’s Speech, indicating that new laws were not being discussed. “Mr Williamson’s article suggests otherwise”, it suggests.

You will comply

Maybe it’s not an issue at all. Compliance with the 1986 legislation is one of the “Public Interest Governance Principles” embedded in OfS’ regulatory framework – and compliance with those was tested by OfS when everyone registered. All it said in its review of that process was that “a significant number of providers, in particular further education colleges, did not have a freedom of speech code of practice”, but I’ve got a feeling that Toddleton College of FE or the Jim Dickinson Drama Academy are not the providers Gavin has in mind.

And anyway, when it looked last year it had “not received any evidence to demonstrate that provides are not using best efforts to tackle this problem on campus and to keep debate as civil as possible.”

So rather than repeat everything we’ve ever said about the issue, I thought I’d try and get into what Williamson’s text says and ask if there’s really anything going on here. Could more legislation be coming? Is the issue some “right wing conspiracy that someone cooked up”? Keep your arms inside the car, and brace brace, as we run line by line through Gavin’s “final warning” (and, depending on what happens in the reshuffle, it might well be).

You will verify

I don‘t want to be needlessly picky, but the piece does open with what I think the ASA would regard as an unverifiable claim:

Academic freedom and free speech on university campuses are rightly matters of high public interest.

There doesn’t really seem to be any evidence for this, unless we count the clicks that we are told are generated every time the press takes an incident on campus, frames it in a particular way, and writes it up for Piers Morgan to get excited about.

Take, for instance, the tale of Cambridge “banning” the military. The Express headline – “I’m so angry! Piers Morgan furious as snowflake students ban ‘alarming’ military” summed up much of the coverage, which kicked off when a baffling front page story appeared on #tomorrowspaperstoday, only to be rewritten for the online version – by which point the damage had been done as Piers Morgan geared up for some faux outrage on Good Morning Britain.

The truth? CUSU’s student council had passed a motion banning all societies and external organisations from bringing actual firearms to its Freshers’ Fair. And lines in the motion suggesting that CUSU stop external military organisations which are not actually student societies from attending, and stopping non-CUSU members from using a society as a front, were actually removed from the motion. Believes 5 even said “that this does not ban individuals from engaging in, for example, the Officer Training Corps, Royal Navy Units or the Territorial Army whilst at university”, which is not quite the angle that the Daily Star went with.

You’re getting worse

After some words written by the DfE’s “universities are good” bot (“…central role … educators of our young people … generators of ideas … challengers of conventional wisdom…. Britain as a nation… vibrant, academically curious … intellectually diverse”) we then get some justification for the rattle of the sabre. He starts with:

One only needs to look at the worsening situation on US campuses to see the importance of taking action here.

It is absolutely true that the US appears to have a bigger “issue” with this “issue” than the UK does right now – but surely everything is bigger in the US? Whether you believe it to be as big as Trump’s republicans do is moot, as is whether you believe the issue in the UK is real or is, in fact, some “right wing conspiracy that someone cooked up”.

I have evidence

Next he tackles some actual cases to back up his claims.

Already in Britain students have been expelled for expressing their religious beliefs.

I’ve had a think, and I think Williamson might have a point here. Last July the Court of Appeal decided the University of Sheffield was wrong to expel a student from a social work course for Facebook posts disapproving of homosexual acts where he’d said that “same sex marriage is a sin”, “homosexuality is a sin”, homosexuality is a “wicked act and God hates the act” and that one day God will “judge all those who indulged in all forms of wicked acts such as homosexuality”.

It was quite a complicated case – the Court of Appeal made clear that Felix Ngole had an obligation not to allow his views to prejudice his interactions with service users by creating the impression that he would discriminate against them, and accepted the university’s position that it was not Ngole’s statements which were the heart of the matter, but his reaction and lack of insight when questioned about the postings. But it concluded that the university had failed to appreciate that his response was an “understandable reaction to being told that he could never express his religious views on topics such as sexual morals in any public forum”.

Maybe Williamson is thinking about lurid press coverage of a UKIP student that made what UCLAN described as a “series of offensive and inappropriate comments” that “breached a number of the university’s conduct regulations, including those relating to harassment and bringing the University into disrepute”. He wasn’t expelled, though – just asked to complete a diversity training course, and was then able to resume.

Or maybe he’s thinking about extensive press coverage of the midwifery student “banned from her hospital placement” over her “pro-life views” that was demanding “an apology from university bosses”. Julia Rynkiewicz, a student at Nottingham, was alleged to have “provided reproductive health advice without the support of a registered midwife” and to have “expressed personal beliefs regarding reproductive sexual health in the public domain” to the effect that it may “create the perception of an impact on patient care”. She also happened to be president of Nottingham Students for Life (NSFL) – a “pro-life society who believe that life should be protected from the moment of conception until natural death” – and the university has dropped the case.

I can’t really find any more, but three cases – two of which were not actually expulsions – doesn’t strike me as many out of 2.34 million students enrolled. Perhaps what’s more interesting is that all three cases – invoked to suggest a culture of intolerance on campus – actually appeared to be about allegations of individual students’ expressions of intolerance, and the complex and nuanced judgments that universities have to make about competing rights which often involve external accrediting bodies.

Given some of the outright homophobia, racism, transphobia and disablism I’ve heard over the years weakly (and unfairly) justified on the basis of religious belief, I could just as easily argue that only three cases is the shocking thing. But I won’t.

There is trouble

Next, though, Williamson moves onto more familiar territory – protest.

Mass petitions have called for the dismissal or defunding of academics because of their research interests

Now call me old fashioned, but at the level of generalisation used here, it is I hope difficult to object to the idea that students are “signing petitions”. We might wish that students weren’t so “intolerant” as to object to someone’s “research interests” in principle, but surely the ability to sign a petition about something and not fear repercussions is one of the things that would demonstrate a culture of freedom of expression, rather than suggest the opposite? He goes on:

On some occasions, universities have caved in to this pressure.

On this one, again I think Williamson might have a point. Last May the University of Cambridge sacked Carl Noah following an letter signed by academics and students demanding his removal. Matthew Bullock, the master of St Edmund’s, said that a panel “had found that in the course of pursuing … problematic work, Dr Carl had collaborated with a number of individuals who were known to hold extremist views”, there was “a serious risk that Dr Carl’s appointment could lead, directly or indirectly, to the college being used as a platform to promote views that could incite racial or religious hatred”, and said his work was “ethically suspect” and “methodologically flawed”.

Or maybe he’s thinking about Maaruf Ali. In May 2019 Dr Ali, a computer science lecturer, posted content on Facebook alleged to have included Holocaust denial, Zionist conspiracy theories and opposition to the creation of a Jewish society at the university – and subsequently a statement said a member of staff had been “dismissed following a tribunal hearing”.

I honestly can’t think of or find any other cases where mass petitions calling for the dismissal or defunding of UK academics have resulted in universities caving in to this pressure, but it does strike me that in both of the above cases the issues look like (again) like allegations of individual academics’ expressions of intolerance rather than institutional intolerance. Is it “intolerant” now for students to sign petitions about what they percieve to be right-wing extremism and anti-semitism?

There are activists

Next, he moves on to an area where there are at least a clutch of cases – loosely described as “activism”:

Too often, activists’ threats are able to shut down events, and there have been appalling incidents directed at the Jewish community at leading London universities.

There’s a “cut n shut” here, so let’s look at both ends of the sentence. I think the “London universities” allegation could refer to a number of incidents over the past decade in places like King’s and UCL where the Middle East conflict has manifested locally, and whilst there’s not space here to weigh up the judgments made in each case, I do know that both universities and SUs have tried very hard to balance their duties to facilitate freedom of expression with their duties to protect students from harm.

I’m guessing that the first half refers mainly to ongoing issues surrounding “gender critical” academics and “trans activism”. Here Williamson does seem to have a point – there are several cases which seem to follow a particular pattern – academic A invites academic B to university X (usually without following the right procedures), a petition and/or protest is launched alleging the academic is transphobic (often with allegations of unsavoury “threats” made by activists), and the university either postpones or (very rarely) cancels the event. There are some good summaries of the passionately held beliefs up on Verso (along with an angle on “civility” on our site) and Sceptical Scot.

There’s actually plenty of evidence of universities bungling the handling of these cases – and the issue probably really does need some proper joined up work from the likes of Universities UK or Advance HE. But again what strikes me is that views on both sides about safety, freedom and oppression appear to be genuinely held and felt – and that universities are having to make complex and nuanced judgments that often appear to be about competing (and often legal) rights. Put simply, they need help here – not “you must do more”.

But “you must do more” is exactly what comes next.

You must do more

More, you see. More is what’s needed.

As a start, universities themselves could be doing much more in this area. The right to civil and non-violent protest is sacrosanct. However, intimidation, violence or threats of violence are crimes. Universities must make clear that intimidation is unacceptable and show a zero-tolerance approach to the perpetrators, applying strong sanctions and working with police where appropriate to secure prosecutions.

Again, I don’t want to be unnecessarily picky here Gav, but harassment and intimidation can involve some form of criminal activity – but it’s just as probable that in many cases academics find lawful protest intimidating. We can easily argue that criminal or unlawful activity should go punished, and that academics might need help with defamation. We can also argue that some of the “law breaking” is over duties in the Equality Act. But the more nuanced line between a right to lawfully protest and a right to academic freedom and freedom of expression surely needs careful thought and handling, rather than sabre rattling about “perpetrators”, “sanctions” and “prosecutions”.

Finally, there’s a section on that thing that eats strategy for breakfast:

Universities should also do more to promote the right culture. The University of Oxford has adopted strong codes of conduct that champion academic freedom and free speech, explicitly recognising that this may sometimes cause offence. Every university should promote such unambiguous guidance.

Aside from the unfortunate wording (“right culture” indeed), I’m not immediately clear on what he means when he talks about Oxford here, not least because Oxford (of course) appears to have separate and different codes of practice on Freedom of Speech (pursuant to the Education Act 1986) for each of its thirty colleges, which is not where I’d start on the hunt for unambiguity.

If universities don’t take action, the government will. If necessary, I’ll look at changing the underpinning legal framework, perhaps to clarify the duties of students’ unions or strengthen free speech rights. I don’t take such changes lightly, but I believe we have a responsibility to do whatever necessary to defend this right.

You have been warned

And there it is – this wicked problem is “critical” and so the decisive leader demands leadership and decisive action, or he will lead with some of his own. I’ve not mentioned that Policy Exchange report from November yet, but the whole Times piece is like a TL;DR of the report. That recommends a national “academic freedom commitment”, an “Academic Freedom Code of Practice” in every university, that both universities and OfS appoint “an Academic Freedom Champion (AFC)”, and that a “duty of non-discrimination for political and moral beliefs and judgments” should be established in higher education – extending the current legal definition of academic freedom “to ensure that the failure to appoint, promote, or otherwise confer a benefit is also included”, and “activities that fall within its scope should explicitly include research, teaching, and extra-mural speech”.

It also calls for the existing statutory duty to ensure freedom of speech and academic freedom to include SUs (despite the fact that they’re explicitly mentioned in the act) and even students themselves – who presumably will be asked to “issue and keep up to date” their own “code of practice” setting out “the procedures to be followed” for “meetings” and “other activities” by their housemates, their parents and that bloke they chat to in Starbucks.

It even suggests that whilst it should be made clear that “the duty to ensure freedom of speech specifically permits members of a university to criticise and contest views expressed on campus”, that duty apparently also “prohibits” members from “obstructing, disrupting, or otherwise interfering with the freedom of others to express their views” – which does sound awfully (and chillingly) like taking away students’ right to their freedom to protest to me.

Real leadership required

I don’t know. Maybe we’ll get a version of the legislation in Australia, or the executive order in the US. Maybe students’ belief in pure “freedom of speech” is being eroded by the bile and hate (and resultant harm) they see spouted every second from some on social media. Maybe this is an area where universities should “do more” – I’ll be the first to argue that assuming that students are ready for what many think is university life and culture is outdated and faulty.

Maybe Gavin is just reflecting a sincerely held view about the state of academia. Discussing the EHRC’s report into racism at UK universities, Wanjiru Njoya (a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter) and Doug Stokes (a professor at the University of Exeter) argue that the reports:

have led to a toxic mix of moral panic, garbled virtue signalling, a fear of reputational damage, and an alignment of senior university management with highly authoritarian and illiberal trends that threaten to degrade respectful interaction on UK campuses and shrink academic freedom and autonomy.

I don’t agree, and my instinct is to assume conspiracy – indeed both sides in this row (a microcosm of the wider culture wars) argue passionately that each other’s position is wrong AND disingenuous. But let’s assume for a minute that I don’t think this is all a “right wing conspiracy that someone cooked up”, or a cheap bit of clickbaity press that plays into the hands of culture war mongers that think that being mean to oppressed people is wot won the Brexit vote and the last election.

Even if I set aside those suspicions, and assume these concerns are genuinely held, I promise you this, Gavin. These issues are complex, nuanced, tricky to manage, and often spectacularly well handled on campus as opposed to literally anywhere else. Easily the hardest moments in my career have been about handling versions of this issue, and I know that’s true for some of the most talented university (and SU) managers, senior academics, and student leaders I’ve met.

What we need – especially the students that we’ll need to lead us out of this war one day – is a “culture” from those purporting to nurture our universities that offers help and dialogue, not pointless regulation and clickbait condemnation. Isn’t real leadership about solving, not stoking, conflict?

2 responses to “Will we ever escape the campus culture wars?

  1. ‘Given some of the outright homophobia, racism, transphobia and disablism I’ve heard over the years weakly (and unfairly) justified on the basis of religious belief’ – well said, sir…..

  2. An excellent forensic analysis of the ministerial statements. An interesting shift has occurred,however, from the outrage of the 1980s and 1990s (of protest and alleged violence, FCS et al) which was focussed on behaviour as intolerant to a subtle change to the meaning and content of the disputes regardless of the remarkable care by universities to handle such cases. So that universities are conscripted into a larger and strategic culture war that is on-going and which touches on a fragile sense of national identities (post- Brexit, Windrush, Scotland’s next referendum, etc).The weakness for universities is that they are obliged to focus only on the functional aspects of the disputed locales of freedom of speech.

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