Is debate under threat on UK campuses?

There seems to have been a flurry of freedom of speech things happening this week.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

On Sunday the Telegraph reported that a group of MPs have written to Boris Johnson to urge the government to reform students’ unions, because “they are at the forefront of efforts to limit freedom of speech variously by censoring poetry and publications, barring speakers or insisting on approving their speeches in advance”.

The evidence for this assertion in the Telegraph appears to be the Adam Smith Institute’s report on students’ unions, which we looked at here. We’ve not seen the actual letter yet, which does rather prevent debate on it.

Then yesterday in Parliament David Davis launched an attempt to get a private members’ bill on the agenda via the 10 minute rule, which would put a duty on universities to “promote freedom of speech”, with institutions which failed to comply liable to fines.

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that the Education Act 1986 already requires universities to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured, and that the Office for Students already has fining powers for universities that aren’t compliant with its regulatory conditions (which include a public interest governance framework that makes explicit reference to freedom of speech and academic freedom).

As well as namechecking the usual tiny list of those that have apparently been “no-platformed” but haven’t really (Germaine Greer, Peter Tatchell, Peter Hitchens, Amber Rudd), Davis’ evidence for his assertions came from a report from Civitas, which we looked at here. We’ve not seen Davis’ actual bill yet, which does rather prevent debate on it.

Now today the Times previews a speech that Michael Barber will give at King’s tonight on diversity of perspective. Much of the report covers remarks that he will make about diversity in staff recruitment and monocultures.

But it also says that he will comment on external speakers. Specifically, it says he will note that some have said that complaints about free speech are a distraction and a right-wing myth, with very few speakers disinvited. It reports that he will say that vice chancellors should gather evidence if they wanted this argument to be accepted, and will say:

I am often told that the vast majority of such possibly controversial speaking engagements do in fact go ahead. I am willing to believe this but would love to see the data . . . one speech blocked would still be a stain on freedom of speech but the context would be clearer.”

Where could he possibly find the data? If only there was some sort of national body, a funder, a regulator maybe, that already captured that data?

Maybe data like this:

Who is the mysterious body collecting this info that SMB craves? Why, it’s the Office for Students!

It hasn’t released data for 18/19 or 19/20 publicly but for 17/18 the figures were:

I’m confident that of the 53 (out of 60k) events that were rejected, the majority will have nothing to do with ideological difference. But it’s the regulator that will know. The organisation Michael chairs collects the data.

My survey of students’ unions in England before Xmas said that of 10,000 external speaker events in 19/20 that they looked after, 6 were refused. 4 were because societies didn’t complete paperwork or gave insufficient notice. One was a convicted pyramid scheme boss trying to speak at a student entrepreneur society. One was Jeremy Corbyn (“no, we can’t host your election rally tomorrow”).

There was a free speech problem when it came to external speakers. Just not the one people imagine.

Just a little update here. Sir Michael didn’t actually deliver the Commemoration Oration word for word, but the section on “No Platforming” in the published version is arguably even more preposterous than we were trailed in the press:

I am often told that the vast majority of such possibly controversial speaking engagements do in fact go ahead. I am willing to believe that this is the case, but I would love to see the data. It is hardly a job for a regulator but if I were a university administrator or an influence at UUK, I would be collecting the data. Then, when a cancellation happened or a speech was prevented by protest, I would at least be ready to point out – if, in fact, it turned out to be the case – that for every event cancelled in response to protest there had been 250 that went ahead. One speech blocked would still be a stain on freedom of speech, but the context would be clearer.

Barber naturally didn’t say whether he thought it would be a “stain” if it was blocked because of the risk of individuals being drawn into terrorism, nor does he say whether it would be a “stain” if it was blocked because someone didn’t get their forms in on time or gave the university or SU a day’s notice to organise security.

Later both in the paper and in the speech delivered on the night, Barber quotes from Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s Coddling of the American Mind, highlighting a rule at Jacksonville State University in Alabama which apparently says, “No student shall offend anyone on University property”. That might indeed be a concern if it was an accurate or contemporary example. But not only was it not quite what that code said:

…it’s also an example that is now eighteen years old. Clumsy? Yes. Rewritten before many of this year’s Freshers were born? Yes.

On the night, I was wondering where I’d heard the example before. And I cast my mind back to the first ever podcast I produced for Wonkhe – back when it was called the Wonkhe Weekly in 2018. One of the discussions was this Economist event where Barber said:

There’s one example in Haidt’s book The Coddling of the American Mind where one university sent around a regulation that says literally no one shall offend anyone else on university property. And that is absolutely ludicrous.”

Ludicrous is a word that springs to mind, yes.

That was also an event where Barber suggested that it was “outrageous” that a pro-life group hadn’t been able to get a freshers’ fair stall at five universities where…. there weren’t pro-life societies.

It’s vital of course that SUs offer stalls to all of their own societies at freshers fairs, and that SUs treat applications to start a society fairly and in an even-handed way.

But if there’s a chess club, SUs don’t have to let in the National Campaign Against Chess in just because fancies a table.

One response to “Is debate under threat on UK campuses?

  1. I worked on the OfS’ free speech strategy in the early days and wrote the papers presented to the Board that year in May and September, available now on the OfS’ website.

    The September 2018 paper states;

    ‘So far, the OfS has not received any evidence to demonstrate that providers are not using best efforts to tackle this problem on campus and to keep debate as civil as possible’.

    We ‘obtained and examined a range of material concerning free speech through public interest disclosure, press office inquiries, as well as the Prevent data’; the free speech work was certainly informed by the Prevent data back then.

    As per this article, the paper argued that ‘Thousands of events take place on campus every year; there are only issues at a few but, when these issues arise, they usually gain substantial media coverage and such media coverage propagates myths’ and, in line with the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ (JCHR) report on ‘Freedom of Speech in Universities’, ‘we have found no evidence of free speech being systematically suppressed. Our experience to date is that providers are working hard to be compliant with their duty under section 43 of the 1986 Education Act’.

    September 2018 seems a lifetime ago; it will be interesting to see if the Prevent data is still informing the strategy and if that data now indicates there is a problem, when it is released.

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