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Time for a left wing defence of academic freedom

Students protesting against WPUK at Northumbria University 2018
Students protesting against WPUK on a university campus in 2018

Gavin Williamson’s free speech proposals: a win for women?

When Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced his government’s proposals to protect free speech in universities in England there was a muted cheer from some feminists. While women are being no-platformed on campuses for taking the view that sex is a relevant political category, that welcome was understandable.

But is a set of rules, and the threat of financial penalties, the best way to protect freedom of speech? Do we trust a government which imposes restraint on such freedom when it sees fit? And why have the proposals been framed around ‘freedom of speech’ and not ‘academic freedom’?

Academic freedom specifically refers to the freedom of all members of universities – academic staff and students alike – to pursue whatever lines of enquiry they decide, in research, teaching and public engagement, without fear or favour. It emerged during the Enlightenment of the 18th century, establishing the right of scholars to challenge the received wisdom of church, aristocracy and state.

UK academic freedom among the weakest in Europe

The Robbins Report of 1963, which led to a major expansion of UK higher education, devoted an entire chapter to discussing how academic freedom was to be secured. The Report guaranteed academic freedom in an era in which universities were largely state-funded. But the protections granted in the 1960s were incompatible with the ambitions of Thatcher’s governments of the 1980s to marketise the university sector. In 1988, new legislation, introduced by the Tory government, watered down academic freedom to its present state, considered to be among the weakest in Europe.

Threats to academic freedom today

In today’s commercialised university sector, where universities act like large corporations, academic freedom faces multiple threats.

Casualisation in academia

One comes from employment practices. In 2016 53% of academics were on short-term or hourly-paid contracts. Many employers measure an academic’s ‘value’ according to their student satisfaction ratings and their number of publications in favoured journals. This encourages those who are precariously employed or seeking promotion to avoid controversy and pursue popular and fashionable topics.

The student as “consumer”

A second threat is the perceived need to placate student ‘consumers’. There’s nothing new in students feeling affronted and even offended by ideas that contradict their views. Learning to participate in robust, evidence-based discussion of ideas without resorting to personal attack requires effort and is sometimes painful. The job of universities should be to teach students how to do this. But a focus on recruiting as many students as possible has seen seminar discussions replaced with more lecturing, and time for dialogue between staff and students has been squeezed out by the increasing demands on academics. So instead of challenging students, university managers anxious to achieve student ‘satisfaction’ seek to ensure their protection from ideas that they find uncomfortable or unpleasant.

The corporate Equality, Diversity and Inclusion agenda

A third threat to academic freedom is universities’ ‘Equality, Diversity and Inclusion’ (EDI) agendas. EDI is a corporate branding exercise which has little to do with addressing the most significant inequalities in the sector, such as the growing gap between pay for highest- and lowest-paid staff. How much cheaper and more straightforward to fly a rainbow flag than to address casualisation of the workforce or provide subsidised food and accommodation for students. Small wonder, then, that almost every university has joined Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme which, for a fee, confers the stamp of approval of this exceptionally powerful and well-funded lobby group. The more profound costs of Stonewall membership – complying with Stonewall’s demands about what can and can’t be discussed on campus – seem less troubling to university managers.

A hostile climate for critical discussion of sex and gender identity

These three factors have produced an extraordinarily hostile climate for critical discussion of sex and gender identity. When students and staff launch protests against the platforming of speakers who advocate for women’s sex-based rights, university managers with an eye to their Stonewall recognition fail to condemn the personal attacks, or to insist on appropriate boundaries for protest.

A handful of cases involving feminist academics targeted for their views have reached the mainstream media: for instance, Professor Selina Todd being provided with security escorts to her lectures pre-lockdown following threats on social media. Professor Todd is a senior and established academic. Whatever the psychological costs to her of the campaigns against her, she doesn’t face a threat to her livelihood. Academic freedom does, at least, provide that protection to secure and senior staff. But beyond the media spotlight are the junior academics, and those on precarious contracts, who keep silent for fear of their jobs, who choose to research and teach less contentious topics, and who decide not to organise public engagement events critically examining gender identity theory. It’s impossible to measure what isn’t happening. But at the University of Edinburgh where I work, I counted 12 public events that platformed uncritical discussions of gender identity ideology in the year March 2019-20, compared with just one on women’s sex-based rights. That should tell us something. Universities, instead of providing the fora where gender identity theory can be critically discussed, have become engine rooms for its uncritical promotion.

Time for a left wing defence of academic freedom

It has been especially disappointing to see sections of the political left lining up to restrict discussion of women’s sex-based rights. A low point came at the University and College Union’s (UCU) 2019 Congress when a motion to protect academic freedom in relation to sex and gender identity was defeated. UCU has rightly pointed out that the threats to academic freedom posed by “endemic job insecurity” do not feature in the government’s current proposals. But while UCU (and others on the political left who purportedly care about academic freedom and freedom of speech) are selective in their defence of such freedoms, and themselves join in with misrepresentations and smear campaigns against feminists, they play into the government’s hands.

Only a root-and-branch reform of university funding and governance which re-establishes universities as public institutions for public good is likely to produce an environment in which academic freedom can truly flourish. In the meantime, the job of the left is to ensure that no ideology is considered unassailable on university campuses, and to challenge no-platforming and other assaults on academic freedom when they occur.

By Dr Shereen Benjamin, Senior Lecturer in Primary Education, University of Edinburgh

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