Universities and the ‘free speech’ bill


The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill proposed by then-Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, is currently in its report stage in the House of Commons, meaning after one more reading there, it will move to the House of Lords. The bill has been widely criticised. Two weeks ago, SU officer Jack Ballingham argued in this newspaper that it had the opposite of its intended effect. Adam Habib, head of SOAS in London, slammed the bill, saying he is “horrified that politicians think they can stipulate how academic freedom is enabled” and that “this government has interfered more aggressively in universities than any government since the Thatcher years”.

Habib’s reaction is understandable, as Williamson could be seen as taking quite a heavy hammer to crack a nut. Last February, he presented a proposal to Parliament outlining what he saw as the obstructions to free speech which exist in universities. He acknowledges that “not every heterodox idea will be good”, which is true, however he risks conflating original but poor ideas with racist, transphobic, or queerphobic discourse.

An event which acted as a catalyst for this bill was the protest students staged against the attendance of Israeli ambassador Tzipi Hotovely at an LSE debate. The protesting students argued that the humanitarian crisis suffered by the Palestinian people eclipses the right to free speech, and that the LSE’s student union should not have invited this speaker. Hotovely acts as a representative of Israel and so, to these protestors, she represents a “terrorist state”, which is the phrase they chanted upon her arrival at the university. Response to these protests was divided, usually between those supporting Palestinian liberation and those who support Israel; concern for freedom of speech was expressed but usually on behalf of the latter group.

Williamson could be seen as taking quite a heavy hammer to crack a nut

Often the freedom of speech debate appears to reveal a deeper rift, that between the ‘woke’ and the anti-woke. Durham University had its own free-speech row over the Rod Liddle controversy at South College; Professor Tim Luckhurst shouting to students as they walked out of the event that “at South College, we value freedom of speech”. But many have argued that these students also have a right to express their opinions.

In light of the subjectivity and emotional intensity of these debates, one could question whether legislation is an overstep in terms of government intervention. The Labour Party went so far as to say that the “free speech bill gives legal protection to hate. The bill will involve the creation of specific roles in universities to ‘champion’ free speech, and one must question whether this role will be one vulnerable to abuse”.

Meanwhile, funding has deliberately been diverted away from ‘lower-earning’ degrees, such as the Arts and Humanities. Many criticised this move, highlighting how the arts’ contribution to culture is an irreplaceable one. Habib’s institution, SOAS, has suffered from the sharp end of this funding intervention, and its left-wing reputation means it does not come high on the Government’s priority list.

For many, the notion of the Government becoming involved in how universities operate is a concerning one

This forms part of a larger trend of the Government’s approach to the Arts following their backing of the infamous ‘Fatima’ campaign which announced that ballerina Fatima’s “next job could be in cyber (she just doesn’t know it yet)”. For many, this level of intervention is disconcerting. An advert is one thing, deliberately moving funds to discourage students from whole fields of study is another.

For many, the notion of the Government becoming involved in how universities operate is a concerning one.

Whether or not the Bill will become law will determine the extent of this intervention and may permanently alter the academic landscape.

Image: Kuhlmann/MSC: IAEA Imagebank, via Wikimedia Commons

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