They’re headlines emerging from research carried out by Alumni for Free Speech, which sent FOI requests to the first fifty universities in the Guardian University Guide, asking for the number and total cost of people employed “wholly or partly” in relation to EDI and the promotion and/or securing freedom of speech and/or academic freedom.
Of the 47 universities that provided relevant information, 515 employed dedicated EDI Staff – an average of 11 each. The total EDI cost across the universities that provided financial information was £19.5 million – £17.9 million on staff and £1.6 million on external resources.
But of the 43 universities that provided information about free speech, only two said they employed anyone with specific freedom of speech responsibilities. These two between them employed not more than 5 people. One (LSE) reported staff costs of £71,000. Another (Essex) said it spent just over £20,000 on external free speech resources:
Overall, therefore, 214 times as much money appears to be being spent by our leading universities on EDI as on free speech protection.
Getting into neutral
As a result of all this, it says there has been an “alarming decline” of the institutional neutrality that was “once the norm” at universities. “Ideological positions” about race, gender and national history which most of our universities now “officially endorse” have, it says, “little or no basis” in either science or fact because they are “neither verifiable nor falsifiable” and are “highly controversial, strongly contested academically and fundamentally at odds with the views of most British people.”
Yet senior managers in universities have empowered their EDI departments to “impose” these ideologies on students and staff, including via so-called “training”.
As well as the obvious problems with the questions, there’s a careful framing here, of course. EDI work is counterposed with free speech and academic freedom, as if the two agendas are directly at odds with each other. The idea that EDI work promotes and secures free speech for those who experienced discrimination is not considered – because here there are new victims of “harassment”. Note the careful and deliberate use of phrases like “hostile atmosphere”:
Universities must avoid discriminating against and harassing people with those beliefs. EDI training which requires people to endorse views with which they don’t agree or which results in a hostile atmosphere for those who dissent is, therefore, highly likely to be unlawful. Nonetheless, often compulsory, EDI training continues to exist and to encourage (and sometimes require) students and staff to agree with the ideological opinions being pushed. Passing such training can sometimes be a condition of being permitted to study or to work at our universities.
To comply with the law and “return to institutional neutrality”, the group says universities should withdraw from “current unhealthy relationships” with external campaign groups, and undertaken an “immediate and drastic” reduction in the numbers of EDI personnel whose activities are “causing serious free speech compliance” issues at our universities:
As things are, AFFS believes that by persisting in endorsing disputed and contentious ideological views, and then imposing them on staff and students through their EDI departments, universities are not complying with their obligations under both university-specific legislation and relevant equalities and human rights laws.
So what’s going on here? Buckingham vice chancellor James Tooley says that the fight for free speech has many dimensions – but “missing so far is the key one of alumni”. So AFFS – a “non-partisan, non-party political” campaign will act as the “reasonable against the unreasonable”, providing protections “for everyone – left, right and centre.”
So as well as research like that referenced above, there’s “legal” briefings, the sending of letters over high profile cases, a plea to form local chapters and a fundraising call, as well as resources like this list of quotes that activists can pepper their letters and blogs with. There’s also an associated campaign, Best Free Speech Practice (BFSP), a “non-partisan” project whose aim is to identify what the legal requirements are for free speech protection in the UK, and what the consequent requirements are in practice.
If that all sounds similar to the modus operandi of the Free Speech Union, you’d be interested to learn that this grassroots-styled outfit has a coordinating committee involving someone who helped form the Free Speech Champions (William Mackesy), a board member who’s also the Chief Operating Officer of the Free Speech Union (Sigrun Olafsdottir, who was previously COO of Toby Young’s New Schools Network) and an advisory board that includes familiar names like Nigel Biggar and Neil Thin.
And naturally, the group is an “affiliate” of Academics for Academic Freedom, one of the old RCP/Spiked! network’s front groups that gathers anecdotes and supplies timeless-sounding Living Marxism stalwart Dennis Hayes quotes to the press on demand:
Universities’ abandonment of institutional neutrality about controversial ideas has led to the suppression of dissenting opinions, forcing people to conform to EDI agendas.
And the activities are pretty much a straight import of those of the US “Alumni Free Speech Alliance” – which as well as all the sorts of things described above, is slowly seeking to use donor leverage to secure its aims.
As I’ve said on here before, this all provides quite the headache for the Office for Students. The spokesperson quote might land in this case on one side of the see-saw (“Universities…must meet their legal duties around freedom of speech”) but there’s no escaping that it’s about to place a whole series of toughened duties on universities in England surrounding harassment education for students.
On one level, its new Director for Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech would be making quite the statement if he attempted to argue, as groups like this do, that curriculum decolonization work or an SU running EDI training for its officers creates a “hostile environment” for free speech. The pressure on him to do so is growing.
And however carefully it navigates what are presented here as opposed and competing agendas, implementation on campus will be open to endless allegations of being on the wrong side of a given line. There’s plenty more of this to come.