Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Shafik, raises some interesting, detailed points that I hope we can look at in Committee. More broadly, I welcome the Bill—although I do so with something of a heavy heart and qualms.

I regret the need for legislation to enforce what should be intrinsic to universities, academic freedom, but I have watched with horror as the HE sector has tried to balance free speech against an ever-expanding array of institutionalised values and mandated outcomes over recent years: student satisfaction targets; promotion of equality, diversity and inclusion initiatives; and external benchmarking schemes in racial diversity, gender identity and environmental literacy. All can and do undermine curriculum freedom. Then there are the demands of the REF and the managerial prioritising of employability skills—on and on it goes. In the midst of this, academic freedom can and is squeezed out and deprioritised.

I hope to amend the Bill to strengthen the idea that academic freedom is the primary duty of universities. It is what distinguishes universities from think tanks, policy and research NGOs, private companies or tutorial and teaching services. The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake and true freedom to explore and challenge ideas without fear or favour are the point of academic freedom—no ifs or buts—and what makes a university a university.

Of course, we need to be wary of government overreach in the autonomy of universities and careful of the Bill’s unintended consequences, such as the chilling effect on students’ right to protest. I get the irony of the scorn poured on the Bill as a device for cancelling cancel culture. More than anything, I do not want the Bill’s proponents to treat this legislation as a technocratic silver bullet, as though all will be well if it is passed. Beware of legalistic complacency. Many of the most egregious censorious trends are cultural, informal and deep rooted, and need to be debated and defeated through the battle of ideas.

The main challenge the Bill faces are the opponents who dismiss the need for it, as we have heard here today, and see it as a hyped-up moral panic—some kind of tedious Tory culture war against woke students. I concede that the Government’s inconsistencies do not help to reassure. A few months ago, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi declared that he would crack down hard on academics who espouse dangerous narratives on the Russia-Ukraine war. Does this mean that the Government’s commitment to academic freedom is dependent on academics holding the correct views on foreign policy, or should we defend the free speech of useful idiots as well as those we agree with? The elephant in the room is surely the Online Safety Bill—a huge threat to free speech in the UK, as the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, indicated. He also noted a number of other contradictory trends.

That said, I think the gaslighting of those of us who raise the growing problem of censorship on campus is a form of denialism that is unhelpful. When I wrote the book, ‘I Find That Offensive!’, on the rise of Generation Snowflake’s campus censorship, I was accused of manufacturing a sensationalist crisis. Actually, I underestimated the trend. My motives were challenged as raising the alarm; I was treated as rather dodgy. That is the same as the cheap, conspiratorial accusations we have heard in this House today that this Bill is driven by some alt-right agenda as a disguise for hate and bigotry to gain a voice.

The idea that the Bill is a sledgehammer being used to crack a nut is expressed by those who seem stuck in the past with a dismissive, “Oh, it was ever thus—nothing to see here”. We keep hearing the same evidence from Wonkhe of 10,000 events involving external speakers, and only six were cancelled, and so on. But these no-platform stats miss the important point. Comments from opposition Benches here ignore the corrosive rise of self-censorship that the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, raised. You do not have to be de-platformed to feel its chill wind. The NUS has a guidebook called Managing the Risks Associated with External Speakers. If you are an external speaker, as I have been many times, you are asked to sign a form promising not to say anything that would make the audience feel uncomfortable.

The message is, “Watch what you say.” Often, speakers are cancelled, dismissed, or simply warned about the content of speeches on the basis of harm and safety—“Be careful”. JS Mill’s harm principle has now been expanded exponentially to include psychological harm, pathologising debates through the prism of therapeutic terms, with trigger warnings and post-traumatic stress disorder if you hear the wrong thing and so on. Safe spaces are not about protection of physical safety, but safety in terms of protection from dangerous ideas.

The threat of external speakers being banned as a safety risk today is very different from the no-platforming of the far right in the 1980s. It institutionalises the link between words and harm. No wonder people bite their lip. As has already been indicated, the main problem is less about external speakers than about a toxic atmosphere on campus for students and staff; self-censorship is damaging to intellectual inquiry. There is a mood of snitching and “watch your back”, a system of public shaming—of reporting one’s peers for “wrong-think” for comments made in seminars or in the bar.

Only recently, we saw the University of Cambridge setting up an anonymous reporting system, encouraging students and staff to name anyone considered guilty of a wide range of listed micro-aggressions. It is no surprise that in 2017 the trade union, the University and College Union, in its own report on academic freedom, reported that 35% of its members self-censor for fear of loss of privileges or demotion. A 2020 Survation poll for ADF found that 29% of students in British universities keep their views hidden when they are at odds with their peers or lecturers, that 40% withhold their views on religious or ethical subjects, and God help any Hungarian students studying in the UK who dare to admit that they voted for Orbán if they are at universities led by people in this House. Apparently, that is enough to get you cancelled. They would stay schtum.

If the price of expressing the wrong views is that you are dubbed the purveyor of hate, bigotry or wrong-think, obviously students and staff will shut up or are so careful that it leads to an anodyne, enervated and sanitised learning environment antithetical to an intellectually lively atmosphere of free inquiry. We should also note that it is not being cancelled but the process of being accused and investigated that has become the punishment, leaving a stigma and a question mark on one’s reputation. You have only to look at the case files of Academics for Academic Freedom or the Free Speech Union to get the gist.

In October 2020, a group of LGBT activists tried to get a porter from Clare College sacked because, in his role as a Labour councillor, he voted the wrong way on the issue of “trans women are women”. I do not blame those students; I blame our generation for not setting an example to them, and I blame those people who run universities for not looking them in the eye and saying, “Academic freedom matters more than anything else.” That is why I hope this Bill will help.