THE UK GOVERNMENT has proposed “tougher legal measures to strengthen free speech and academic freedom in English higher education”. Yet the case is poorly argued, with confusing proposals more likely to undermine than uphold these important freedoms.

Other new measures also increase state control. The most extreme is a policing bill which would severely limit freedom of expression and of assembly for students and staff, along with everyone else in society who might protest against the actions of the powerful.

The proposals stoke ‘culture wars’, which may distract voters from politicians’ failures and boost their popularity, often at the expense of organisations and minorities already hit by the pandemic. The wider public will be affected in other ways too. For instance universities have a key role in educating young people and in developing and sharing knowledge which influences society.

There are genuine problems around academic freedom and freedom of expression, if not on the scale that is sometimes claimed. However the Conservative government’s plans do not address key causes. And, while a few of the people feeling unfairly silenced may find such measures helpful, overall they are likely to deepen divisions. It is worth exploring alternatives which combine compassion and truth-seeking and might actually work.

This includes looking at how faith communities – even within which there may be strongly-held conflicting views – can help to foster mutual respect and care and pursue wisdom. This may be relevant also in other countries where governments are trying to take away important freedoms, affecting educational institutions. Addressing such issues may assist in rebuilding a vigorous culture of human rights, at a time when these are under threat, and relating lovingly with people with varying experiences and needs.

Tightening the reins on universities in England

Tensions between universities and the government over freedom have been in the news in February and March 2021. Ministers have sent out contradictory messages, while also facing challenges. The ‘Prevent’ duty, aimed at reducing terrorism and ‘extremism’ but often vague about what was banned and repressive in its effects, had already been a source of friction.

There had been much controversy over a definition of antisemitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which many felt could silence critics of Israel and be harmful to Jewish people by not distinguishing clearly enough between them and the actions of that state. However, the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, had threatened universities which did not adopt this. After a report warned of “potentially deleterious effects on free speech, such as instigating a culture of fear or self-silencing on teaching or research or classroom discussion of contentious topics”, in February, the academic board of University College London urged UCL to reject the IHRA definition. This made it easier, though not risk-free, for other universities to defend academic freedom and free speech.

Concerns about direct political interference in the running of universities was stoked when a Conservative peer, James Wharton, who had managed Boris Johnson’s party leadership campaign, was appointed as chairman of the Office for Students (OfS). He did not resign the party whip: even the pretence of independence among public officials was being abandoned.

Williamson wrote that every student “has a right to expect a minimum standard of education that is likely to improve their prospects in life.” He urged the OfS to take action against “providers who do not demonstrate high quality and robust outcomes.” Commercial pressures already get in the way of academic freedom. But this would make it possible for the state to exert more direct control, especially if lecturers taught critically about government policy or on subjects important for society which enriched students’ lives but did not lead to jobs in sectors such as banking.

On 16 February, the Education Secretary revealed “Landmark proposals to strengthen free speech at universities”. He intended to appoint “a new Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion to investigate potential infringements, such as no-platforming speakers or dismissal of academics, and higher education providers would be legally required to actively promote free speech”, with fines or even de-registration for those which fell short. Student unions too “would have to take steps to ensure that lawful free speech is secured for their members and others, including visiting speakers.”

Some critics of Gavin Williamson’s approach questioned his reliance on a right-wing think-tank report which drummed up media publicity over an event which never actually happened . What is more, universities facing tricky choices may be punished whatever they do.

The paper admitted that there were already restrictions imposed by equality and other law and government policy, while not making it clear how staff and student leaders should steer their way through various frameworks pulling them in different directions. It also agreed “that individuals have the right to campaign against speakers, to protest peacefully, and to decide who they wish to share platforms with or indeed invite to speak.” But higher education providers “should be doing much more to challenge the climate in which these actions are seen as a standard response to encountering views that are seen by some to be controversial” (quite what they should do seemed unclear).

I work in a university, though not as a manager or academic, and sympathise with those who would have to decide between conflicting requirements. For example, suppose a lecturer vocally opposed masks, social distancing and vaccination. What if freedom to influence students to ignore restrictions interfered with the right to life of security guards or catering workers with whom they came in contact and an employer’s duty of care?

Or what if a student society booked a speaker they thought inspiring but whom others regarded as a hate preacher, like the US evangelist Franklin Graham? Several venues due to host him on a visit to Britain in 2020 cancelled and Jacob Rees-Mogg, a senior government figure, criticised them for infringing freedom of religion and freedom of speech. Might the OfS Champion step in if something similar happened on campus? But what if such a figure gave an inflammatory talk after which gay or Muslim students reported verbal abuse? Or it potentially infringed the ‘Prevent’ duty on “extremist views that risk drawing people into terrorism”? Graham’s behaviour when his close ally Donald Trump lost the US election was at least dangerously unwise: he promoted false claims that the vote was rigged and was accused of helping to create the groundswell of rage which led to a failed insurrection, though he condemned the Capitol attack. The UK government might win some approving media headlines by heaping fuel on the fire if a university faced a dilemma of this kind in future – but at what cost?

On top of this, paving the way for further tinkering in institutions’ internal discussions, universities were warned not to seek to impose “a political or ideological viewpoint upon the teaching, research or other activities of individual academics”, including that of “decolonising the curriculum”. This refers to a push for work arising from Africa, Asia and Latin America and people of colour elsewhere to be taken seriously, along with that from the Western ‘mainstream’. Sometimes it is seen as part of a wider drive, for instance to include more working class voices.

Universities minister Michelle Donelan helped to pile on the pressure. In the House of Commons. She denounced Durham University Student Union for seeking to abide by Charity Commission guidance on external speakers, which had been shaped in part by her predecessor. She stated that “no university should ever grant a student union any authority or role in vetting, limiting or otherwise overseeing which external speakers may be invited to speak on campus, or under what circumstances they may do so” and warned that her officials had “asked the Office for Students, the independent regulator, to investigate this matter and have also contacted the Vice Chancellor of the university to express my concerns.” In this surreal situation, universities and student leaders risk being shamed and punished even for trying to comply with what the state requires.

Shortly afterwards, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, giving the state massive powers to criminalise non-violent protest, had its second reading in Parliament. It is clear that the government’s rhetoric about academic freedom and free speech is hollow, as it tramples basic human rights norms. Yet unless those seeking to defend key freedoms address obstacles to these, situations will keep arising which are ripe for exploitation by politicians. And opportunities to deepen and broaden education and research will be missed.

Academic freedom, free speech and obstacles in higher education

Academic freedom was defined in 1997 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisations as “the right, without constriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching and discussion, freedom in carrying out research and disseminating and publishing the results thereof, freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work, freedom from institutional censorship and freedom to participate in professional or representative academic bodies. All higher-education teaching personnel should have the right to fulfil their functions without discrimination of any kind and without fear of repression by the state or any other source.”

With this, went the responsibility “to respect the academic freedom of other members of the academic community and to ensure the fair discussion of contrary views. Academic freedom carries with it the duty to use that freedom in a manner consistent with the scholarly obligation to base research on an honest search for truth.”

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Freedom of speech matters for students too. A 2019 King’s College London report, after students were unfairly treated in connection with a protest on Israel and a separate visit to Bush House by the Queen, suggested that “The right to free speech and protest are enshrined in Articles 10 and 11 of the Human Rights Act. The Education Act 1986 places a legal duty on universities to take ‘reasonably practicable’ steps to ensure freedom of speech within the law. Freedom of speech and protest are closely linked, free speech would mean nothing if there was no right to make your views known. University is where students have the opportunity to explore and challenge their ideas and beliefs and at times this may mean pushing at or breaking the bounds of acceptable behaviour.”

This highlights the varied situations in which concerns about freedom might arise, even if media coverage focuses on ‘woke’ students or staff. Inequalities are actually still common and some of the constraints on freedoms are linked to flaws in systems, affecting people with a range of opinions and research or teaching interests.

I think key problems include a combination of an older authoritarian culture, in which colleagues and students could find themselves sidelined if they disagreed with senior staff, and a newer emphasis on ‘business’ principles. Commercial pressures and a shift towards sometimes crude performance management is in part a result of the actions of successive governments in recent decades, including turning students into ‘customers’. But some top managers have embraced this approach.

Employment precarity – meaning that many staff are unsure if they will still have jobs in the university in a couple of years and students may be unsure they will have a job at all – raises the stakes. Many senior academics and administrators welcome debate and disagreement but, even so, those in less secure positions may think twice before disagreeing with someone perceived as powerful in their institution, profession or field of study. Students too may wield some power, especially if skilled at influencing peers, in an internet era when Twitter-storms may damage someone’s reputation and teachers can be downrated with a few strokes on a keyboard.

Also teaching and research in fields which do not bring in much money to institutions risk being cut. Recently much has been written about Katalin Karikó’s groundbreaking scientific work, which led to the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Yet this was nearly halted when she worked in a US university in the 1990s, because it did not attract funding: she was demoted because she would not switch focus. Luckily a colleague supported her and she later met two passionate scientists who ran their own firm and shared her belief in the potential of messenger RNA. Sadly, similar obstacles can occur in the UK.

Wealthy donors and regimes in which universities have opened campuses, or from which many students originate, may exert pressure, along with British leaders. The human tendency to conform may further limit what people say, teach or study. Also in universities, as in wider society, many do not greatly value human rights unless these benefit people with religious or non-religious beliefs similar to theirs. This includes some people concerned about social justice, who may believe that views or lines of inquiry which might promote inequality should be suppressed.

While there are limits (for instance covering hate speech), Corey Stoughton , a human rights lawyer, has argued that, though words can be harmful, “shutting down speech rarely silences the relevant message and often makes it stronger.” But to her the most important “reason to question equality-based arguments for limiting free speech on campus is that they almost always prove counterproductive to the cause of equality. The tools we give universities to limit speech in the name of equality will be used to undermine equality.”

Such arguments deserve to be taken seriously, especially at a time when civil liberties are under threat. In addition, opportunities may be missed if those who care about equality fail to develop the skills in university settings, in conversation with others who may often be naïve rather than hostile, to argue their cause convincingly. This may leave them unable, in the world outside college walls, to make a persuasive case for justice and peace.

What can be done?

Government attempts to keep interfering in universities’ internal affairs should be resisted, especially where linked to attempts to ‘divide and rule’ those facing different kinds of disadvantage. Staff, students and wider communities may wish to join in discuss the complexities of defending freedoms, amidst tricky judgment calls (for instance when maverick views might slide into intellectual sloppiness).

The philosopher Neil Van Leeuwen has suggested distinguishing between two types of ‘safe space’ . “Let’s call the first kind of place a ‘safe-being space.’ This is where one can exist without risk of feeling demeaned. The second kind can be called a ‘safe-talking space,’ where one can express ideas without recrimination.” This is not absolute and may still result in dilemmas but may nonetheless be useful.

For example, Christians in universities may fully support the right of anti-theists to argue against, even mock, our beliefs. Yet we may prefer (when going to the toilet or canteen) not to have to walk past numerous images caricaturing Jesus, especially if we are from countries where churches are persecuted. What takes place in a debating hall, or optional course exploring visual representations of belief and disbelief, would be rather different.

In practice, a ‘safe-being space’ may require some measure of tolerance and forgiveness for everyone in it to feel truly safe. And a ‘safe-talking space’ may need to foster respect for women, minorities and working class people if they are to feel confident in sharing views – and be heard when they do. Nevertheless it may be worth looking more at ways of using different physical and online spaces within an organisation or network to meet different needs. Experiences of community-building in other settings may also be relevant.

The government’s flurry of decisions and proposals on, and threats against, universities and those who work or study there undermine important freedoms. Those wishing to defend these may need to work together more effectively if key rights and values are to be defended, in higher education and wider society.


© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016)  and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (DLT, 2017). Her latest articles can be found here. Archived articles (pre-2020) are here.