WHEN everything else seems turned upside down, one thing at least hasn’t changed: in universities, freedom of speech remains as divisive as ever.
Over the past year, the Government has ratcheted up interventions in the sector, culminating in the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, introduced in May.
Some proposals within the Bill largely replicate existing legal requirements on universities to uphold free speech within the law. Others are more far-reaching, including the proposal to fine institutions if they are deemed to uphold free speech insufficiently, and the proposal to extend free-speech requirements directly to student unions — which would make it much harder for student unions to deny platforms to people with lawful views that the students don’t like.
These plans will encourage students who currently feel unable to invite external speakers that they want in case they are perceived to be too controversial. But commentators have raised important questions about how the plans would work in practice, and about unintended consequences.
Legislating on this is a quagmire, as the Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, discovered when it was suggested that the new law could force universities to host Holocaust-deniers.
The Government knows that the public is worried about universities, and there are votes to be won by taking action. In a 2019 YouGov poll conducted for the Theos think tank, 52 per cent of adults thought that free speech was under threat in universities (only 14 per cent disagreed); 29 per cent thought that “Islamic extremism” was common there.
As I explain in my recent book on this topic with Alison Scott-Baumann, Freedom of Speech in Universities: Islam, charities and counter-terrorism, there is a binary narrative about universities: both that free speech is in crisis because they are unfairly restricting it (and that students are snowflakes unwilling to grapple with ideas they disagree with); and that they are giving too much freedom to extremists (particularly Muslim ones).
Neither narrative is accurate. Radicalisation on campus is very rare: only 15 referrals were made by English universities to Prevent, the deradicalisation programme, in 2017-18. That year, out of 62,094 requests for external speakers, only 53 were rejected. And a survey of 61 students’ unions in 2019-20 found that just six events out of nearly 10,000 were cancelled.
High-profile cases of students denying platforms to those whom they dislike (such as the last-minute cancellation of the former Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s invitation to speak at the University of Oxford in 2020) are clearly problematic, but don’t reflect the huge number of events that go ahead unimpeded. Moreover, according to a 2019 representative survey of more than 2000 students, by the Policy Institute at King’s College London (KCL), the overwhelming majority think it is important for universities to protect free speech, and 70 per cent feel comfortable expressing their views on campus.
This suggests that talk of a crisis of freedom of speech on campus is exaggerated. But that doesn’t mean that there are not problems that need to be taken seriously.
WE DO not know how many students choose not to request speakers out of risk-aversion. In the same KCL survey, one quarter of students said that they did not feel able to express their views because they were “scared of disagreeing with my peers”. This is particularly the case among Right-leaning students; about a third of Conservative supporters and of Leave supporters feel this way. But so do about one fifth of Left-leaning or Remain-supporting students. Feeling restricted in speech is not solely a right-wing experience on campus.
Socially conservative students and particular religious groups may also feel pressure to self-censor. For example, online (self-selecting) polls have indicated that some Jewish students feel uncomfortable debating the Israel-Palestine conflict on campus, and some pro-life students feel unable to discuss their beliefs.
And, as found in a research project on Islam on campus, some Muslim students feel pressure to self-censor and avoid inviting potentially controversial speakers. This risk-aversion is due less to worry about criticism from their peers and more to fear of being falsely perceived as extremists under the Prevent duty, the requirement for universities to identify and report people at risk of radicalisation.
This is important to note, because much public debate about free speech on campus focuses solely on student activism rather than regulatory structures. My research with Alison Scott-Baumann found that another such structure, the regulation of student unions by the Charity Commission, has also led some students’-union managers to discourage students from inviting controversial (though lawful) speakers, out of fear of breaching charity law .
To be clear, these challenges to free speech affect only a minority of students, and recognising the strength of open debate on campus is important for avoiding unwarranted moral panic about the sector. None the less, we must take these concerns seriously. University life, like society more widely, is severely diminished when viewpoint diversity is restricted.
WHAT, then, needs to be done? The Government’s top-down proposals will keep university eyes on the prize of free speech, but are unlikely to help students with minority views feel more comfortable expressing them on campus. Alison Scott-Baumann and I argue that it is only action by universities themselves, not government pressure, that will lead to change.
An example of meaningful reform is the voluntary code for students’ unions recently developed by a group of students’-union officers and the higher-education think tank Wonkhe; a code that would commit students’ unions to upholding free speech and political diversity.
University managers need to tackle the structural factors that can discourage free speech. They should encourage their students’ unions to be bold and host controversial (lawful) speakers if students request them. Managers also need to address the specific issue of Prevent, by recognising that some Muslim students feel alienated by it; and managers need to engage regularly and transparently with them to help to address their concerns.
They also need to be far more proactive in creating opportunities for students, across all disciplines, to engage in rigorous debate about relevant controversial issues in the classroom, with ground rules agreed in advance.
Finally, universities need to be proactive in challenging the flawed binary narrative about them. This means finding better ways to explain to a disillusioned public how universities contribute to democracy by providing space for frank, controversial debate, and for challenging perceived orthodoxies. It is only through rearticulating the value of universities that change will come to the free-speech wars.
Simon Perfect is a researcher at Theos. He is co-author with Alison Scott-Baumann of Freedom of Speech in Universities: Islam, charities and counter-terrorism , published by Routledge at £25; 978-0-36725-782-8.