Every week another new piece on universities and freedom of speech seems to be published.
For example the recent pamphlet Free speech and decolonisation in British universities, published by the opaquely funded think tank Civitas, begins with the proposition that free speech on campus is worsening.
It cites the attempted assassination of Salman Rushdie – and the case of the Batley teacher who is in hiding after receiving death threats – to justify its claim. These incidents are terrible – but they have little to do with universities.
Part of the methodology for the paper was to scour university websites and the media against a series of loosely defined “indicators” on freedom of speech. It’s difficult to know what this report is trying to suggest, given some of the indicators are merely about having a harassment policy. Who are the universities that don’t?
Another section counts “controversies” found in the media and on websites on transphobia, islamophobia, open letters, and no platforming. One of the controversies is Buckingham setting up a “free speech society”!
Even by their own broad definition, Civitas only found 374 of these “controversies” between January 2017 and August 2020. Given there are 500 higher education providers, 3m students and half a million staff, that seems tiny.
A wearing wokeism
There is a tactic here. If think tanks like Civitas write that “Free speech controversies tend to accompany transgender-related restrictions on free speech as well as decolonisation,” and it gets the clicks, then the social issues of advocating for students’ rights, wider injustices, and freedom to be never mind freedom to speak, are reduced to concerns of some “other side”.
In a simple stroke of a key, the pressing social issues of our time are rehashed into an “aren’t young people annoying” debate. Individually, such reports wouldn’t deserve attention let alone stand up to scrutiny – but collectively but they feed into a miasma that distracts from the material issues students face.
Maybe that’s the idea. Every minute spent rehashing whether reading lists have too few or too many books, and every sentence spent on “the new radicalism of transgenderism and decolonisation,” is one avoiding the truth about the material conditions.
The key issue which should concern everyone from any political persuasion is how students will get through this winter. And yet as usual, almost every other group in society except students seems to feature on the list of those being considered, let alone getting help. Yet the cost of being a student is outstripping the support they are receiving.
I am not an economist, but I know that the increasing number of students has led to an increasing demand for rental properties. That increased demand in turn pushes the price of housing up.
So for those away from home, this means more of a students’ maintenance loan (which in part is public money) is funnelled into the pockets of buy to let landlords. This then leads to a situation where more students are accessing more hardship funding – which is put into the pockets of landlords. Where’s the “value for money” debate about that?
And outside of accommodation, students are then subject to the same pressures as everyone else. There is no secret student discount for groceries, or gas and electric, or water.
Even where students are supposed to get help, it’s impossible to access. The current government line for students in a shared house is that any savings or rebates in bills for landlords should be passed directly on to students. With no help getting it out of them.
It’s hyper-local trickle-down-economics, and the results will be quite atrocious, as Mary Poppins once said.
There is ultimately no need for us to scrape university websites for concerns about free speech. Instead, we just need to go out and talk to some students as students’ unions are every day. There, we find their concerns are about heating, eating, and living, as students.
In the end, reports like this, and dozens like them, have little road left to run. The shame of it all is that you can’t culture war with the economy.
Whether it’s freedom of speech, restricting immigration for international students and their families, or taking pot shots at “Harry Potter studies”, it will in the end do absolutely zero for students this winter.