Michelle Donelan, among friends at Policy Exchange
David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe
How are great universities grown? It’s ok, the minister knows. Countries with a tradition of freedom of speech have universities that rank better in international league tables. And nations where free speech is rare do not see universities flourish in the same way.
Holding my nose, I had a peep at some international university rankings and it seems that the top countries for universities include the US, the UK, and China. I’m not sure how to break that last one to Michelle Donelan, but I’m not seeing China as a global bastion of free speech – and I note that the coddling of the American mind and cancel culture on UK campuses are apparently huge problems that people write actual reports and legislation about. There’s not really any hard data on this stuff, but I don’t think it correlates.
Donelan’s speech at Policy Exchange was notable for an almost Johnsonian refusal to allow the doomsters and the gloomsters to have their day. The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is practically perfect in every way: it addresses serious issues with laser-like precisions, there are no unpleasant side effects, and – if passed – it will immediately and for all time solve the problem of a lack of free speech on campus. To be fair, in the one news item sneaked past, there will be be some more DfE thought about academic freedom to come at report stage – sadly, there wasn’t space to offer an explanation as to why we’ve been waiting for the report stage since last September.
It’s not a good idea, I hear, to debate ideas in a monoculture. Sure, it can be personally sustaining – and give you a warm glow of acceptance – but you never really end up being challenged in your beliefs. It feels good to preach to the choir, but sometimes the fires of opposition can forge better ideas or meaningful compromise.
I can only imagine the minister’s delight when both Eric Kaufmann and Helen Joyce got the chance to as questions, alongside the Telegraph, Universities UK (actually the most penetrating question of the day, pressing the minister further on the academic freedom point). A smattering of sympathetic academics and an attempt by Will Hazell to get hints on the names of possible OfS Directors of Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom rounded out proceedings – though Donelan was happy to castigate opponents of the legislation rhetorically none got a chance to speak.
According to the minister:
Many of the fundamental ideas that helped to build today’s society were once considered controversial, fringe ideas that only reached prominence through open debate on the campuses of universities up and down the country”
Alas, those halcyon days are no more:
Progress is no longer considered progress unless it conforms to an increasingly narrow ideology.
Which is a big thing to say if you are unwilling to concede that aspects of your own ideology may be as ripe for confrontation as some of the things those crazy old-timey folk supposedly used to believe.
The speech did change my mind on a political conviction of my own, however. I’ve long felt it is the duty of government to intervene in failing markets in the interests of the wider population – but I have to draw a line.
The government should not intervene in the market place of ideas. Sometimes unpopular ideas just need to fade away gracefully.