Higher education and antisemitism – vaccine or vector of transmission?

Today at the Department for Education (DfE) in London, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi is hosting a “behind closed doors” summit on antisemitism on campus.

Ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day tomorrow, various sector reps and Jewish rights groups will discuss incidents of antisemitism on campus and discuss measures and commitments that can be taken to ensure Jewish students and staff feel safe in higher education.

Elements of work have been trailed by the DfE – the Union of Jewish Students is offering to roll out training on what antisemitism is and how to support students facing it, VCs will be invited to share and publicise case studies to help share best practice, and the Community Security Trust will discuss how to build a better picture of patterns of antisemitic incidences – which it says can help with targeted interventions.

They all sound like good initiatives – but surely the summit won’t pass without a proper discussion on the Freedom of Speech (Higher Education) Bill?

In the media, the Zahawi quote picking up coverage is that “education is the vaccine” against the “lingering plague” of antisemitism. But what if it’s also a vector of transmission?

On the face of it, the legislation has been repeatedly sold as protecting controversy, discomfort and offence as long as we’re talking about views and expression within the law. That presents a very specific problem in relation to the David Miller case at Bristol, where a long-running controversy surrounding allegations of antisemitism came a head in October when it emerged that the university had sacked the sociology professor accused of antisemitic comments following an investigation, during which Jewish students said they felt “unsafe and unprotected” on campus.

Tory defector Christian Wakeford even led an adjournment debate on the issue in Parliament earlier this month.

The university launched an investigation into Miller’s conduct in March 2021 – and the case saw some on campus accuse Miller of spouting antisemitic tropes in lectures and online, and others argue who worried that sanctions would stifle sensitive research.

In its statement, the university said its investigation included an independent report from a leading QC who considered the important issue of academic freedom of expression and found that Professor Miller’s comments did not constitute unlawful speech. But it then said that its decision to terminate his employment with immediate effect was prompted by its duty of care to students and the wider university community. In other words, the university argues that while Miller’s comments weren’t unlawful, they did breach the university’s conduct rules – which go further than the law.

There are some ultras in the free speech debate that argue that (almost) all conduct rules in universities should go, but back here in the real world most of us know that it’s right that universities (and indeed their SUs) know that standing up and calling someone else “a massive wanker” might well not be unlawful, but it may well breach conduct rules in a seminar room. As such everyone has rules that build on concepts like dignity, respect and community – all of which go beyond the law – and roll them out as enforceable expectations on campus.

As such the question that has always surrounded the campus free speech agenda – and now actual legislation on the issues – has always been the extent to which you believe that such rules are weaponized to allow controversy to be suppressed by the woke, or whose absence in the name of freedom would in fact encourage bigotry that’s just about on the right side of the law but ought to be beyond the pale in a classroom or an SU council meeting.

The government’s position is both absolutely unequivocal and impossibly vague. Here’s Robin Walker (Donelan was off sick) in that Wakeford adjournment debate:

I am absolutely clear that the Bill does not give a green light to antisemitism and holocaust denial. In particular, any attempt to deny the scale or occurrence of the holocaust is morally reprehensible and has no basis in fact. I am categorical that nothing in the Bill in any way encourages higher education providers or student unions to invite antisemites, including holocaust deniers, to speak on campus.

It’s a clever form of words that. The question obviously isn’t whether the Bill (or subsequent guidance) issues edicts on proactively inviting antisemites onto campus. The question is how providers and their SUs respond when someone is accused of antisemitism and that conduct is found to be offensive to others, but technically lawful.

He continued:

The strengthened protections for freedom of speech are likely to support students from minority backgrounds, who, on a number of occasions, have had their speech shut down by others.”

In some senses that lime is encouraging. But it’s exactly the line that student groups on campus have always used to defend “safe spaces”, conduct rules and even, from time to time, no platforming. It’s effectively the line that activists in the Sussex/Stock case use, but the government is arguing that the Bill would have dealt with that scenario in an entirely different way.

Really simply. Are universities and their SUs going to be allowed to maintain conduct rules in the interest of campus cohesion and the protection of minority voices that may, from time, as a result, restrict otherwise lawful speech?

Or will ministers continue to be deliberately vague and dump the deep contradictions here on OfS to wrestle with in guidance once the Bill is passed?

One response to “Higher education and antisemitism – vaccine or vector of transmission?

  1. Evidently the answer is that it depends whether it is the ‘right kind’ of free speech that is being protected as determined by ministers and/or the OfS free speech Czar. If that supposition is correct then I find it rather more worrying for free speech.

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