Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Lord Johnson of Marylebone Portrait Lord Johnson of Marylebone (Con)
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I think there is a marketplace in ideas—maybe I am not answering the noble Baroness’s question as she might like. Good ideas stand the test of time, they get picked up by other academics, they get cited, and that whole process of establishing which ideas are good and which are not is pretty effective and works well. The charlatans, the snake oil peddlers and the bullshit artists find that their ideas will not get repeated endlessly and established in the canon of good academic practice.

My second reason for questioning whether it will be sensible to reintroduce this language into the Bill is that I simply do not think it is practicable in any meaningful way. Who is to police the boundaries of someone’s academic expertise? Who is to stand in judgment and say, “You’re qualified to have an opinion”—unpopular or controversial—on a particular subject? I simply do not see that as viable, so I am very hopeful that the Government will not relent and let it back in.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine Portrait Baroness Falkner of Margravine (CB)
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I apologise to the Committee because I was unable to be here for Second Reading, so I come a little late to it. Nevertheless, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, because I share his views on Amendments 15 and 16, but I will also speak in opposition to Amendment 17. He is quite right to say that they would diminish academic freedom. I refer particularly to the humanities and social sciences, although I think he was referring to “the sciences”. It is frequently the case that over a 45 or 50-year academic career someone will follow a particular discipline for, let us say, a decade or two, and then find themselves, as science and research continue, to have something to say about something else and to shift.

For example, somebody mentioned an international relations scholar—I am married to one—moving into historical research. It would dampen and diminish academic freedom, rather than enhancing it, so I certainly oppose Amendment 15 on those grounds. There is one other ground. I think that this year we are coming out of the 50th anniversary of Thomas Kuhn’s work on paradigm shifts, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. That provides all the evidence we need that discovery does not move in a linear fashion. It does not have an end goal that you can arrive at. Ideas change, shift and adapt, and that is how new paradigms come about. I do not want the Minister to give way on those grounds.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, also wanted to know from the Government about beliefs and opinions and where the boundary lies. I suggest that the boundary lies in a tribunal in interpreting whether beliefs or opinions can be deemed to be protected characteristics. Because I have touched on protected characteristics, perhaps I need to declare that I chair the Equality and Human Rights Commission—to get that on the record—although I am speaking to the amendments in a personal capacity.

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Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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I completely understand the noble Baroness’s point about terms and conditions. That is perfectly reasonable in terms of employment law, but what we are talking about here is the danger of the phrase “bringing an institution into disrepute”, which has been used by universities when people are accused of being, for example, transphobic. First, “disrepute”, in one of the amendments, is a very slippery word, as somebody said. Secondly, I was trying to draw attention to the fact that a lot of the new ways that universities are operating were never part of the terms and conditions that somebody signed up for, and academic freedom is something that you might expect of a university.

There has been a lot of talk about Oxford and Cambridge. Would a Cambridge academic not be able to criticise Cambridge University for its failure to, for example, maintain academic freedom? Is the noble Baroness suggesting that that would breach their terms and conditions, that it is egregious and that they should not be allowed to do that? It seems to me that that kind of freedom to criticise is very important.

Many years ago, I fought a strike and won, where they tried to impose on a further education college that we would never criticise what was happening in the college. It was seen then as an attack on our freedom to talk openly about education. Suggesting that if you are an academic you are going to go out and slander the college is completely different from what we are really talking about here, which is the open ability to be able to criticise when you are being clamped down on, often in free speech terms.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine Portrait Baroness Falkner of Margravine (CB)
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My Lords, I shall just deal with that. I am aware of very vigorous debate at Cambridge University, but I am not aware of the university having fired an academic for standing to defend free speech. In fact, most of the arguments at Cambridge currently are about academics who are standing up and saying to the former vice-chancellor that the current vice-chancellor is going to go and spend more time with his family and that they have had enough of him, more or less.

To my mind, the Bill could have been written in three pages. It almost goes into micromanagement of higher education institutions—autonomous institutions, we have to remember. To my mind, it makes a bit of a meal of a problem that I completely accept exists but could have been addressed in a slightly more constrained fashion. All the debates I have heard, and I read the Second Reading debate, had more and more people wanting to hang baubles on to the Bill to essentially make higher education institutions non-autonomous and to put them into a straitjacket whereby there will be a deeper constraint on free speech.

We will come to Clause 4 next time, on Wednesday or whenever, and we can talk about that then. It is a relatively good and carefully drafted Bill. We run the danger of adding so much to it—and it comes, as I said, on the back of several previous higher education Acts—that we will end up with the opposite of what we wish to see.

Lord Moylan Portrait Lord Moylan (Con)
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My Lords, I shall speak briefly in support of the noble Baronesses, Lady Fox of Buckley and Lady Falkner of Margravine, and my noble friend Lord Johnson of Marylebone in opposing Amendment 15. The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, referred to the 50th anniversary of a seminal book. I think it would be odd if we got through a debate on universities without referring to the fact that it is roughly 170 years since Cardinal Newman published his lectures, known as The Idea of a University, probably the first attempt in the 19th century to define what a university looked like and what it was for. I have a familiarity with every single line of that book because, when I was a schoolboy, I proofread the standard current Oxford authoritative edition for its editor, Father Ian Ker. Indeed, a very minute examination of the acknowledgements would reveal that to be the case.

We are discussing this in a very modern way, but there are two things we can take away from Newman that really are very important and relevant to this amendment. The first is that the word “university” implies universal; that is, there are no bounds on the fields of inquiry to which a university can go. The second is that, for Newman, this is a collective endeavour. We are discussing this as if the advancement of knowledge was to be followed only by individuals with specific expertise in certain areas, and as if the sharing and communication of knowledge among them—be it through papers, through social engagement or simply through having dinner together and discussing things—was not a crucial part of that endeavour. I simply urge those two points at this stage. It seems to me that Amendment 15 is wholly misconceived as to how knowledge is advanced and what a university actually is and should be.