04/05/2018 10:38 BST | Updated 04/05/2018 10:38 BST

Universities Should Protect Free Speech - But Any Regulation Must Be Light-Touch Rather Than Gold-Plated

The new announcement on guaranteeing free speech in universities places the Minister closer to the tabloid press than to the NUS

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Spare a thought for Sam Gyimah, the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, who has just declared himself to be the doughty defender of free speech on university campuses. He has kicked up a storm by committing himself to ensure “the rules and regulations around speakers and events” at universities “are not a barrier to free speech within the law”. 

To understand this position, you need to recognise the three competing pressures on any universities minister. The first is the university sector, who want a spokesperson in Whitehall. The second important group is students. They sometimes want the same things as universities, but not always. For example, vice chancellors tended to back £9,000 fees, while students tended to oppose them.

The third group is the public, whose views are shaped by the media. Not all voters think the same, but there has been a rash of stories asking whether the university sector is performing as it might.

Different university ministers have responded to these pressures in different ways. David Willetts, for whom I worked, protected universities by securing their income and letting them recruit as many students as they want. Jo Johnson, in contrast, went to war on the public’s behalf on issues like vice chancellors’ pay.

Until Thursday, Sam Gyimah looked like he was going to put students first. He has even declared himself to be the ‘Minister for Students’. (I like the idea of ministers choosing their own titles; it reminds me of the students’ union election when a candidate changed their name to ‘Free Beer’.)

But the new announcement on guaranteeing free speech in universities places the Minister closer to the tabloid press than to the National Union of Students (NUS). It provoked a predictable Twitter storm.

The challenge for those who think Sam Gyimah is wrong is that there have been some remarkably silly recent attempts to squash free speech at universities, such as trying to ban a Christian Union from a Freshers’ Fair and seeking to block MPs from making speeches.

Such instances are rare. When they do happen, the students sometimes back down and admit they were wrong – our survey shows many students are confused by free speech questions and need help negotiating them. But it is futile to complain about press coverage when such juicy stories are served up so regularly.

Moreover, even though true threats to free speech are uncommon, they can lead to an environment that stifles debate in the cause of political correctness. When we published a paper on how white working class men do worse in accessing university than every other group, we were attacked for ‘over-focusing on male underachievement’.

To those who are worried about a new juggernaut of regulation, Sam Gyimah’s response is that he merely wants to implement the findings of the cross-party Joint Committee on Human Rights. They have called on the Government ‘to address the impact of regulatory regimes on free speech.’ As our own work for the Committee shows, negotiating all the red tape can be a nightmare for students who want to put on an event.

But it is a little more complicated than just getting rid of excessive bureaucracy for two reasons. First, there are provocateurs who will want to test out how robust any new requirements are, conceivably at huge cost. Berkeley, part of the University of California, recently spent over half a million pounds and brought in police from eight different agencies for a 15 minute appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos. If I was a student paying £9,250 a year, I am not convinced I would want my money spent on that even if I agreed with Milo (which I don’t).

Secondly, the Joint Committee on Human Rights made another important recommendation too. They called for an independent review of the Prevent duty, which is a Government programme for limiting the spread of terrorism. Witnesses told the Committee Prevent was having a ‘chilling effect’ on campus. But no official review has been announced, so the Government cannot claim to be implementing the JCHR’s recommendations in full.

The best move now would be to try and balance all the competing interests without losing sight of the fact that universities should indeed protect free speech. That means ensuring universities that clarifying the rules won’t mean having to waste resources on puerile events that have little to do with their core functions. It also means reassuring students by agreeing to review Prevent. And, finally, it means helping the public understand that universities welcome visitors from across society by ensuring any regulations are light-touch rather than gold-plated.

Nick Hillman is the Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute