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.
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.