Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Baroness Hoey Portrait Baroness Hoey (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I find it rather depressing that Her Majesty’s Government have had to bring forward a Bill to ensure freedom of speech in higher education. I grew up in an era when you aspired to go to university not just to get wonderful academic teaching leading to a degree, but also to have the opportunity to explore new ideas, face challenges you had not met before, widen your horizons and challenge some of the traditional views. The idea that someone might not like what you said and try to stop or cancel you—a word we had never heard of in those days—rather than debating or arguing was unimaginable.

I understand why many in your Lordships’ House do not seem to think that the Bill is right but, sadly, I believe that the need for it is now clear and the reasons for the changes are many. I refer to the Policy Exchange report from 2020, which found a significant lack of “viewpoint diversity” at universities. Some of the statistics were shocking. As someone who campaigned all over the country for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, the one that stood out for me was that just over 50% of academics would feel comfortable sitting next someone at lunch who was known just to have voted to leave—not even to have campaigned, so I will not be getting many invitations to academic lunches. That is just for having used your vote democratically in a parliamentary approved official referendum.

We have seen individual academic career prospects and access to research funding adversely affected by discrimination based on the individual academic’s views. Of course, the hounding of Professor Kathleen Stock, forced out of Sussex University by constant and repeated abuse and intimidation because of her views, has been slightly a focus of this Bill. But if this could happen to someone such as Professor Stock, how many other people coming into university to teach for the first time suddenly find that they have to be very, very careful about what they say?

A higher education council study is also alarming. It tracked attitudes of a representative sample of university students over the past six years. What it found should alarm all of us. The new generation of university students is increasingly supportive of removing from their campuses words, ideas, books, speakers and events they find uncomfortable or offensive. They seem willing to impose restrictions on others and to curtail views they disagree with. “Safe spaces” seems to be this new buzz word. We have to shield students from words and ideas that make them uncomfortable, and if you question or challenge this orthodoxy, you should be punished or ostracised. Matthew Goodwin pointed out in an excellent article on Unherd that a lot of this is happening right here in our own universities: refusing to allow tabloid newspapers to be sold on campus; banning speakers—maybe only a few, but nevertheless—who offend students; supporting getting rid of academics if they teach material that offends; and removing memorials of historical figures.

I do not want to stop anyone—to stop students—protesting about something they feel strongly about, and I do not believe the Bill does. In my day, we were always protesting about apartheid in South Africa, for example. I do not even mind students criticising lecturers on the grounds of the quality of their teaching; again, I do not think the Bill does that.

Academic freedom must be the primary duty of universities, and it should be defined more broadly than it is in the Bill. Too many of those in charge of our universities have been too weak or complacent to fight back against some of this behaviour. Too often, they have given into any demand from the student body, which must be agreed with at any cost, or they agree with anything that looks like it is the latest fad or, if I may use the term, a woke issue.

There will be amendments to this Bill which will make the protections of academic freedom stand fast. For example, in saying that HEPs must take reasonably practical steps to secure freedom of speech within the law, the duty is not clear enough. The responsibility to secure lawful free speech on topics of an academic or political nature should be an absolute and positive duty. I am sure that other amendments will come through your Lordships’ House, many of which have been suggested by what I consider to be the excellent Free Speech Union.

This freedom of speech Bill is about education, and education is devolved, but surely freedom of speech in universities across the United Kingdom should be in the Bill. In Northern Ireland we have one Russell group university, Queen’s University, and the University of Ulster. Why should this not apply there? If we wait for an Assembly to do something like this, none of us, not even the youngest Member of your Lordships’ House, will be around to see it happen. An amendment should be brought in to include those universities. Freedom of speech should not be a devolved issue. I remind your Lordships that, in the Ashers cake case, the Supreme Court recognised that ECHR Article 10 must include the right not to have to say what you do not believe. Prohibition of forced speech must be a key element of freedom of speech.

The Bill can be amended for the better to meet some of the challenges that noble Lords have already mentioned, but I support it. If it is changed quite a lot, it might be a wake-up call to those in authority in universities who have perhaps taken their eye off what academic freedom really is.