Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Baroness Stroud Portrait Baroness Stroud (Con)
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My Lords, I support this higher education Bill. I am sure it will benefit from the input of noble Lords in this Chamber, but its intention is good. This Bill is one of the first of its kind worldwide. It resets the balance in favour of freedom of thought and expression. It comes at a time when our public discourse and intellectual conversation are becoming increasingly intolerant.

Academic freedom is central to the character and nature of who we are as a nation. It is essential for the discovery of and search for truth, the foundation on which we build our society, to which my friend, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry, drew our attention earlier. It is essential for the development of a resilient generation of critical thinkers who are not afraid of ideas. It is essential for progress: without the freedom to think and express the free exchange of ideas, the entrepreneurial spirit and the drive for innovation are extinguished. They are essential to the growth and prosperity of our nation and to a truly democratic society.

Only when people are able to think freely, speak freely and exchange ideas freely are good ideas able to flourish and bad ideas defeated. It is therefore vital that this freedom is protected among those whose very profession it is to exchange and debate ideas and pass them on to the next generation. There are some who, as we have been doing this afternoon, genuinely ask the question: “Is academic freedom under threat?” But for those who have sons and daughters in our universities, or who are connected with the academy, the answer will come back: “Yes, it is.” Perhaps it is not in the minds of those in illustrious posts that some hold in this Chamber, but parents up and down the land and professors and lecturers in our universities would say that that is their experience.

We need only consider the recent experience of Professor Kathleen Stock—hers one of nearly 100 recently recorded cases—to appreciate the toll that academic intolerance can take on the lives of those who dare to speak out in an increasingly hostile public square. This is damaging not only to the individual academic concerned but to the intellectual growth of our next generation of students. These students will soon join businesses up and down the land as active participants in the public square and in our workforce. They need to be able to engage in new, innovative and exciting ideas without fear and with creativity.

I appreciate that for some of your Lordships, like me, it has been a few years since we last sat in a tutorial or a lecture. I acknowledge that students have always questioned and critiqued dominant societal narratives. However, in recent years the power of students and student unions to lobby, disinvite and cancel speakers and professors from their universities has gained traction. This matters and universities do not appear to be equipped to resist this. For example, time and again university administrators have pursued the path of least resistance, opting to cave in to vocal minorities who seek to cancel or censor those who are disagreed with. Much of the focus of this afternoon has been on the free exchange of ideas between students, but this about professors and lecturers within universities as well. This cancelling of a speaker then creates a chilling effect in the academy, disincentivising those who profess new or unorthodox views from participating. This, in turn, damages viewpoint diversity, essential for a world of creative ideas to flourish.

Recent research at King’s College London suggests that one-quarter of students are self-censoring their views. Survey data collected by the University and College Union, a trade union representing more than 120,000 academics and support staff, suggested that one in three academics now self-censors due to the fear of suffering negative consequences if they voice their views or deviate from the dominant orthodoxy. This matters.

This environment in the academy has very real consequences, not only for scholarship but for professors and students themselves and, ultimately, for our nation. UK academics are significantly more likely than their counterparts across the European Union to report abuse and bullying, and to feel the need to conceal their beliefs. In a competitive marketplace of ideas, when we need to be driving growth and innovation, academic freedom stemming from the freedom to think and speak is critical.

I support this Bill because of the appropriate and moderate ways in which it seeks to actively promote academic freedom on campus and address the chilling effect of our cancel culture. I particularly draw attention to the creation of the free speech champion, which was discussed earlier. When a student or academic has been cancelled despite acting within the law, the free speech champion would be empowered to investigate and potentially fine or sanction the censoring bodies. The creation of this champion coincides with strengthening the duties around free speech, particularly around student unions, requiring them to respect freedom of speech as they carry out their functions. This Bill will give the regulator the teeth it needs to ensure that academic freedom is not just protected but promoted on campus.

Academic freedom is the ability to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions. It is vital to remember that many of the intellectual and cultural positions we now seek to preserve came into existence by questioning the majority view. Academic freedom, alongside freedom of thought and freedom of speech, are our cardinal democratic freedoms: it is from these freedoms that all other liberties flow. If we get this Bill right, Britain can continue to declare itself a beacon of freedom and a model from which academic systems around the world can take inspiration, and we will empower the next generation to be intellectually resilient, able to engage with challenging ideas and equipped for all that lies ahead.