OPINION
18/02/2021 15:20 GMT | Updated 18/02/2021 15:23 GMT

Universities Are Facing Pressing Issues. ‘Free Speech On Campus' Isn’t One

While students and staff struggle through a pandemic, Gavin Williamson is spending his time confecting culture wars, writes UCU general secretary Dr Jo Grady.

While university students and staff continue to teach and learn in lockdown, Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, spent his week fighting phantom threats to free speech. 

There are pressing issues facing higher education during the pandemic. Hundreds of staff at universities across the country are dealing with the threat of redundancies, after huge numbers of casualised academics saw their jobs axed last year. 

Misled by ministers and vice chancellors into thinking they could have a relatively normal university experience, students are struggling too: a recent survey found that 9% have turned to foodbanks during the pandemic, while students have paid £1billion rent for empty rooms over the past year. But instead of addressing these failings, the government has once again decided to distract from them by generating a new round of headlines for its confected culture war. 

Williamson’s proposals are based on an assumption that there is a crisis of free speech on university campuses, supposedly caused by students and staff eager to shut down challenge and stifle dissent. 

There are real threats to free speech and academic freedom at universities. But they come from the government and university employers, not from lecturers and student unions. Indeed, one of the directors of leading human rights group Liberty has argued the single biggest threat to free speech on campus is the government’s Prevent programme.

The proposal for a ‘Free Speech Champion’ in the OfS looks like another case of ministerial interference threatening free speech and academic freedom, rather than a genuine initiative to protect them.

The Office for Students’ (OfS) own figures from 2019 show that at least 2,100 events and external speakers at 65 different institutions were interfered with under Prevent in just one year. And there is evidence for the ‘chilling effect’ created by this interference: one-third of Muslim students surveyed by the National Union of Students in 2018 felt that they had been negatively affected by Prevent. Of those impacted, 43% felt unable to express their views or be themselves as a result. 

In this context, the proposal for a ‘Free Speech Champion’ in the OfS looks like another case of ministerial interference threatening free speech and academic freedom, rather than a genuine initiative to protect them.

Academic freedom is, of course, a central part of any functioning democracy, and there is no doubt that those working in our colleges and universities must be free to question and test received wisdom. We at the UCU have always been a vociferous defender of academic freedom, while also being clear that it is inextricably bound up with other civil liberties and human rights.

These proposals also completely fail to get to grips with the threat posed to academic freedom by the extent of precarious employment in universities. More than two thirds of researchers and almost half of teaching-only staff in the sector are on fixed term contracts. This proliferation of precarious contracts is closely linked to marketisation and the volatility it causes in undergraduate recruitment. Staff in such insecure jobs risk unemployment by speaking truth to power. Academic freedom is not just about the right to voice unpopular opinions, but the freedom to choose and shape research and teaching without pressure from managers or the government.

If it is serious about defending free speech and academic freedom on campus, the government should begin by addressing the central threat: its own policies.

Yet the research and teaching goals of precariously employed staff are often dictated by their managers, who hold power over grants, funding streams, and promotions. The DfE’s proposals acknowledge this in passing, but ultimately treat it as an afterthought. 

Williamson’s intervention comes amidst creeping state interference in academic research, with the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, seeking to dictate how the history of the British empire should be written, and ministers attacking student-led attempts to broaden the curriculum.

The marketised model of funding higher education has left staff on insecure contracts unable to speak out, while university leaders and the government are empowered to tell students who they can and cannot listen to. 

If it is serious about defending free speech and academic freedom on campus, the government should begin by addressing the central threat: its own policies. 

Dr Jo Grady is general secretary of the UCU. Follow her on Twitter at @DrJoGrady