Michelle Donelan fires a big new shot at the sector in the culture wars

If you were hoping for a ceasefire in the culture wars following last week’s by-election results, you will be disappointed to be working in higher education in England.

Further and higher education minister Michelle Donelan has written to higher education providers in England to ask them to consider carefully whether participation in Advance HE’s Race Equality Charter and Athena Swan is compatible with free speech and academic freedom principles – and whether the schemes represent value for money given an expectation that providers will improve efficiency.

Extraordinarily, Donelan has also questioned senior staff posts in this vein, asking providers to review whether…

… the creation of new, highly paid, management roles in these areas truly represent good value for money for taxpayers or students.”

This has been coming for a while now. Back in September 2020 an odd collection of efficiency initiatives called “Reducing bureaucratic burden in research, innovation and higher education” had warned universities that:

…such schemes can be helpful but can also generate large volumes of bureaucracy and result in a high cumulative cost of subscriptions. Where a university believes that membership of such schemes are genuinely the best way of addressing a matter, it is of course free to do so, but in general universities should feel confident in their ability to address such matters themselves and not feel pressured to take part in such initiatives to demonstrate their support for the cause the scheme addresses.

Since then, Stonewall’s Diversity Champions and Workplace Equality Index schemes have been in the news, attracting the attention of the “Common Sense Group” of MPs and various newspapers as part of the trans thread of the culture wars.

Same story

As such, as soon as the media noticed that a remix of the story was available for higher education, today’s letter has been inevitable. The Common Sense Group actually wrote to Gavin Williamson just under a year ago but for whatever reason the story didn’t really catch fire.

It’s been rumbling around for a while since (popping up over incidents like Tony Sewell and the University of Nottingham’s offer of an honorary gong), and then in May a “government source” was branding participation in the REC as “egregious wokery” – promoting a response from Advance HE here on the site.

Then earlier this month interim Office for Students CEO Susan Lapworth waded in with a chilly nudge:

I’d expect autonomous universities to be thinking carefully and independently about their free speech duty when signing up to these sort of schemes.

…and Donelan was prepared to put her name to more direct critique following another intervention from the Common Sense Group, branding Athena Swan:

at worst a dangerous initiative that undermines scholarship”.

There’s all sorts of issues to consider here. Insofar as this is a wedge issue, the sector is being invited to pick a side. Tactically universities will wonder whether to just get on with change internally or whether to respond directly – but the danger as always with these things is that even if the work goes on, staying quiet starts to look incompatible with previous pubic statements in defence of this kind of work, as I warned a while ago on the site. There’s only so long that facing in both ways and hoping will work, when previous heartfelt commitments have stressed the way in which sector leaders will, well, lead on issues of equity and equality.

There is the autonomy angle – but Donelan isn’t daft, making clear back in 2020 and in today’s letter that this is still a decision for autonomous universities – albeit overlaid with a vaguely ominous tone if universities go ahead.

I noted last week that over in Wales, the country’s anti-racist action plan says that the Welsh Government will expect HE institutions to achieve the Race Equality Charter mark within three years as a condition of funding.

And maybe this is just a bit of showboating post-report stage and ahead of Lords second reading of the free speech bill.

A question of values

But there is something else very important here that we should think about. In some ways the vanishing point is whether universities as employers and operators of a community have the right to determine their values and then cause their own employees and students to act in accordance with those values – what some would call their educational character and mission.

In some ways we might view adopting some values, and implementing conduct rules or internal funding schemes or action places to roll them out, as essential to create an environment in which free speech can flourish. Academic activity could still critique them, after all.

Others would argue that doing so – embodying and decisions to decolonise the curriculum or adopt a position on trans rights or whatever – has a chilling effect on those who oppose such views.

People might not like it much, but surely a university has the right to decide to put employability into the curriculum. If that isn’t an academic freedom or freedom of speech issue – especially if students and staff are free to criticise it – why is this stuff? Isn’t it another aspect of educational character and mission?

We are as such right in the kernel of the debate here about the “meaning” of free speech in higher education. If it turns out – via the free speech bill and subsequent OfS guidance – that universities and SUs as employers and membership organisations can’t adopt values and then set expectations for how people treat each other, or execute the mission of the university in accordance with those values, all because doing so would be antithetical to “free speech”, that would be a very difficult day indeed for the sector for all sorts of obvious reasons.

Are we really heading to a point where a fuzzy and contested definition of free speech, coupled with a politicised appointment of an OfS Director to oversee regulation of it, will result in OfS writing to SUs to tell them they can’t campaign on EDI issues?

Plenty of people in the sector will want to avoid these sorts of rows coming to a head in case they don’t go their way. In the end they may not have much choice.

21 responses to “Michelle Donelan fires a big new shot at the sector in the culture wars

  1. Surprised Donelan had time to write this given she spent her time last week voting (again) against women in Northern Ireland having abortion rights.

  2. I feel like this is the point at which the sector really does just need to tell Michelle Donelan to f*** o**.

  3. So, unless Athena Swan is included, it seems the Minister believes some groups are more deserving of equality than others? These ‘threats’ are becoming quite sinister sinister and chilling.

    1. Audrey worries about other people’s genitals more than is healthy. I find that quite sinister and chilling.

      1. In no way worried about other people’s genitals, I can only surmise you are projecting there. I am worried about Athena Swan’s motivation though.

        1. I would imagine their motivation is “tackling the discriminatory treatment often experienced by trans people” as per their statement of principles. What about this worries you?

  4. Not that long ago that a Conservative Universities Minister announced that membership of Athena Swan would be a requirement if bidding for research grants.

  5. Intrigued to understand why a Race Equality Charter is singled out as problematic by a Minister who has very recently pushed universities to sign up to a Mental Health Charter.

  6. Is the strong steer / requirement to sign up to a common position, articulated by an external body, on antisemitism ok because it doesn’t cost anything? That’s the only difference I can see. If this is a free speech position it’s (to no one’s surprise of course) a somewhat inconsistent one.

  7. Jim argues for a university being able to adopt institutional values on race, sex / gender etc, as they do currently. He compares this to having ‘employability’ on the curriculum. Jim’s assumptions are, to say the least, concerning for anyone who values academic freedom.
    A university is not a political party. It is a distinctive type of institution, charged with the developing, passing on and critique of knowledge off all kinds. Academic freedom, and a general assumption of freedom of thought and speech, are foundational values that underpin that role. The idea that a university should endorse particular political positions on race (decolonise / decolonialism is disputed by many scholars of all backgrounds, see link at the end for example, likewise notions such as ‘white privilege’) or sex / gender (where Stonewall and other activists play a big role in shaping university policies endorsing gender theory views), undermines that foundation.
    While of course there are questions about the place of employability in the curriculum, employability is not a political / philosophical standpoint. That’s simply not a valid comparison.
    Jim says that academics could still critique the values adopted by a university. They could, and some do. But in doing so they may be speaking directly against the stated values of their employer, enshrined in Stonewall, REC etc. That is clearly not conducive to academic freedom. The same for students – why should a student impressed, for example, by the arguments below, feel that they are writing against the stated view of their institution? Or why should a gender critical student feel at risk of institutional censure for stating their view ?

    Some good counter arguments to Jim’s ‘values’ agenda at : https://www.afaf.org.uk/

    1. Except employabililty is a political / philosophical standpoint. In the case of UK HE, it is a neoliberal, capitalist agenda. This and previous Governments have been pretty clear that what they consider to be employability is how much a student earns after university (ie contributes to tax revenue) and whether they are in a so called ‘graduate job’. Such metrics favour certain disciplines over others and devalue certain sectors of the economy such as art, design and other creative enterprises. They shape the sector and are politically decided.

      1. Exactly Neil. One of the great successes of the proponents of our current culture wars has been to draw a line around what is considered ‘political’, in ways that suit their agenda.

        Questions about what the purpose of education is, and the place of higher education within capitalist production systems, are absolutely and fundamentally political. The comparison is entirely valid, and I think very helpful.

  8. It is chilling to hear these values described as ‘bureaucratic’, something the Tory party has been quietly pushing for at least a decade. The values promoted in all aspects of the equality movement are about higher education being a right that everyone, regardless of characteristic or background, is able to enjoy in an atmosphere free of bullying and hate. That’s the bottom line. So if a person opposes that we need to take a good look at where that opposition eventually leads us. Chechnya? 1930s Germany? Even the recent decision by the USA Supreme Court on abortion rights. That all adds up to an agenda of unfettered hatred. I know which side I’m on.

    1. Would I be right in thinking that an ‘atmosphere free of bullying and hate’ might be one in which your opinions are never examined or challenged except on pain of some kind of punishment?

  9. And yet, conversely, Ofsted requires us to promote ‘British Values’ in higher apprenticeships…

  10. Jim B. is right, comparing ‘employability’ to membership in the Stonewall Diversity Champions scheme, REC or Athena Swan is facile. All of these charters require institutions to put pressure on their employees to embrace political positions, often in quite fine-grained ways. Stonewall even logs university-sponsored social media posts. And cui bono? Most students will be happy with enhanced employment prospects but who benefits materially from pronouns in email signatures? Athena Swan now privileges gender identity over biological sex, when women continue to be under-represented among the professoriate and maternity remains the biggest killer of female university careers. You don’t have to like this government to question EDI quangos.

  11. Can’t help but wonder what might happen if we switched the language (and actions) from Equality to Inclusivity. I see Nat C’s point and know those who struggle to get a look in due to physical or neurological differences would undoubtedly agree. Being inclusive would mean all are welcome and have a voice. Ideological concept I know, but better than any badge and something genuinely worth striving for.

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