Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)
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Sorry, Amendment 15. This just demonstrates that the profession I need to go to is my optician, which kindly cancelled my appointment.

Amendment 15 is very much to think about to what extent this is about particular academic standards. I suggest that it is in effect probing, although my noble friend does not say that.

The next amendment, which I think we all take as being Amendment 16, is to omit

“and controversial or unpopular opinions”.

This is not necessarily to say that these things should not be there, but in the debate on an earlier group of amendments the Minister pointed out that beliefs and views are not the same and that beliefs are protected under the Equality Act. But then there is the question of where we put unpopular opinions. They are not beliefs. Are they views? Should they be in there? My noble friend’s question here is about whether we should expect academics to put forward views based on evidence. Here the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, has a point, because while we would expect to look for evidence, at some point in the intellectual journey you might be looking for evidence and not yet have found it—but presumably we would want the views that academics espouse to be at least based on something that goes beyond the whole QAnon idea of fake news and invented facts. Do the Government have a view on that?

In Amendment 20, my noble friend is again concerned about practicality. To what extent should the Government expect to be involved, or expect the law to be involved, in the way higher education institutions are engaging in promotion and looking at the way people are appointed within higher education institutions? We are not necessarily suggesting in any way that people’s jobs should be put at stake, or indeed that they should not be promoted, but this is a probing amendment to understand how far this legislation is intended to go.

Finally, I suspect the last word from me today is on Amendment 23, also in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. Again, to what extent can the Government and the law be involved? What is the Government’s intention here? How far do they intend to interfere further in higher education institutions?

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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.

Baroness Garden of Frognal Portrait Baroness Garden of Frognal (LD)
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My Lords, Amendments 15 and 16 were probing amendments, so I do not think my noble friend Lord Wallace will be totally mortified to discover that the entire Committee is not in favour of them.

Earl of Leicester Portrait The Earl of Leicester (Con)
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First, I apologise for not attending Second Reading; I could not be here. I shall speak very briefly against Amendment 16 because I think it is very dangerous to leave out “controversial or unpopular opinions”. Newton had a particularly controversial opinion, Einstein too, and Galileo’s opinion on Copernican heliocentrism, which for you and I is the earth rotating daily and revolving around the sun, was met with opposition by the Catholic Church; he was tried under the Roman Inquisition in 1615 and spent the rest of his life in house arrest. To suggest that we remove the words “controversial or unpopular opinions” is, I think, very dangerous.