Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Lord Sikka Portrait Lord Sikka (Lab)
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, on this. He mentioned money; I wish I had some, like many other people. Let me declare an interest: I am emeritus professor at the University of Essex and the University of Sheffield.

My amendment seeks to loosen the shackles imposed by private sector research funders upon the ability of academics to publish research. Those shackles have got much tighter with the advent of the research excellence framework, which attaches weight to the external research funding that is raised by universities. Within universities, indeed, any academic these days wishing to be promoted has to show that he or she has managed to secure a lot of research funding.

This research funding comes with lots and lots of strings attached, which raises conflicts of interest. Can your Lordships imagine trying to get some research money to look into gambling or the development of weapons? It would come from the gambling industry or from British Aerospace and others. Then if you produce research which is critical, would they really let you publish it? That is really the question.

I have looked at many research contracts—some colleagues have told me about them—that include clauses which give the funders the final say on whether the research can be published. Funders can vet, and have vetted, the research questions, methodologies and methods, data analysis and the conclusions of the studies. In many cases, draft papers need to be submitted to the funders. I have experienced that myself, and their approval is needed before anything can be disseminated, perhaps at a conference—because many academics present papers at conferences before they submit them to any peer-reviewed journal—so they need to be vetted. Funders can block, delay, or demand changes to the papers because they do not like the research findings, or they may just sit on the paper for a prolonged period to make its research very stale and untimely. Again, I have experienced that, as I explained at Second Reading.

One prominent scholar told a peer-reviewed journal:

“In our commissioned research project, the commissioner’s representative interfered with both the entire study and the publication because I did not let him influence the sample. Instead of random sampling, we should have made a ‘comfort sample’.”

There is a classic example of a pharmaceutical company funding a researcher to compare its branded thyroid drug with a generic competitor’s. The researcher found that the generic products were as good as the expensive branded products. The publication of the research could have jeopardised the funder’s sales and profits so the drug company went to enormous lengths to suppress the research, including taking legal action against the researcher and her university to prevent the paper’s publication.

In the past few days, one UK academic told me that the funder vetted his paper and did not like the negative health effects associated with the consumption of processed food. The funder decided that some cases of negative effects were outliers and were to be eliminated from the paper. It is bit like saying, “Somebody has died from this disease but it is an outlier so let us ignore and suppress it”. The academic concerned refused to accommodate the changes and the paper was never presented at a conference nor published. Another academic told me:

“The funder demanded control of all the raw data relating to the negative effects of a drug. Under pressure, I agreed. Subsequently, the funder would not allow me to release the data to a peer-reviewed journal and I could not publish the study, which was less than complimentary about the funder’s products.”

Over the years, several studies have established links between passive smoking and lung cancer. Tobacco companies have a long history of trying to subvert research by framing the research questions, designing the study, collecting and providing data and even writing the final papers for academics. Industry funding and the quest for research grants have persuaded many scholars to ignore important research questions because they simply will not get funding otherwise. Indeed, in my own field, it is incredibly rare to find research that is critical of auditing or the anti-social practices of the finance industry. None is ever funded by anybody from the City or the world of accounting because that is not the kind of thing that they fund. Many academics also do not do that kind of research because it jeopardises their chances of getting research funding from the world of accounting and the City, so such issues are basically ignored.

The Government are also a culprit. Commenting on a June 2016 report by Sir Stephen Sedley, Missing Evidence: An Inquiry into the Delayed Publication of Government-Commissioned Research, Nick Ross concluded that

“expensively commissioned findings sometimes fail to see the light of day and weak rules are used to bury unwelcome evidence for long enough to make it stale.”

In November 2020, the British Medical Journal published an article, “Covid-19: Politicisation, ‘Corruption’ and Suppression of Science”, which reported four instances of the suppression of science during the pandemic. It was all to do with the government-funded research. One instance related to the suppression of the 2016 study codenamed Operation Cygnus, which documented deficiencies in the UK’s pandemic preparedness. The report was eventually released in 2020 after an outcry in the media and interventions by the freedom of information commissioner. The Government did not want to publish it; their suppression denied the public, parliamentarians and medical communities vital information. The funder of the study stifled the debate.

The BMJ reported that a Public Health England report on Covid-19 and inequalities was delayed by the Department of Health; a section on ethnic minorities was initially withheld and then, following public outcry, was published as part of a follow-up report in 2020. Authors from Public Health England were instructed not to talk to the media about it. On 15 October 2020, Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, publicly stated that an author of a research paper, a government scientist, was being blocked by the Government from speaking to the media because of a “difficult political landscape.”

Another example relates to what the Government codenamed Operation Moonshot. The project required an immediate and wide availability of accurate, rapid diagnostic tests for Covid. This research concluded that the Government procured an antibody test, which cost £75 million, that in real-world tests fell well short of the performance claims made by its manufacturer. Researchers from Public Health England and collaborating institutions sought to publish their study findings before the Government committed to buying a million of these tests but were blocked from releasing them by the Department of Health and the Prime Minister’s office. Public Health England then unsuccessfully attempted to block the British Medical Journal’s press release about the research paper. The reason for all this was that the research was damaging to the commercial interests of the corporation involved in these tests.

I have provided only a brief glimpse of some of the ways in which academic research is subverted and suppressed and, consequently, scholars and policymakers are denied the opportunity to see the evidence, data and findings. This is damaging to academic freedoms, scholarly endeavours and society as a whole. Amendment 53 seeks to prevent funders exercising undue influence on the design, conduct and dissemination of research. After all, what kind of expertise do they have in these matters? If they had any, maybe they would be doing the research themselves. This amendment makes scholars, their communities and journal reviewers the final arbiters of the quality of research. I urge the Minister and the House to support it.

Lord Triesman Portrait Lord Triesman (Lab)
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My Lords, I can probably do this quite briefly. These are very helpful amendments, which illustrate an extremely important point. To work out why or how the Bill will be useful or effective, it is important to understand what academics do—what life on the ground is actually like and what having a career entails. I want to follow my noble friend Lord Smith of Finsbury’s earlier comments, but I think that is for a later debate. If academics want to pursue a career, there are facts on the ground that cannot be overlooked, and these amendments address them.

There is a longish history to this; I must confess to having my fingerprints on parts of the REF at different times in the past, so I want to acknowledge that I have probably contributed to a problem. Today, if you want to make progress, it is entirely commonplace in universities to expect that, in the last period of assessment of research, you will have produced at least three articles in reputable referee journals. If you have not done so, you will not be promoted and if you do not have tenure, you will probably not survive at all. It is imperative. It is a gating process about which this Grand Committee will do nothing, because it is not in our power, but that is how it happens.

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Baroness Garden of Frognal Portrait Baroness Garden of Frognal (LD)
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My Lords, I will also speak to the Clause 7 stand part notice in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Wallace, who is absent. I note with interest that the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, referred earlier to the HEPI report on students, which made interesting but fairly depressing reading—particularly with regard to students these days being very reluctant to discuss anything with which they disagree.

These amendments are at the requests of students and student unions, which are very concerned that provisions in this Bill could involve them in costly, time-consuming administration and litigation. Our revised Clause 3 aims to provide clarity on the responsibilities for freedom of speech in a more student-friendly manner. We were also alerted to the problems of geography. Many higher education providers have operations overseas. Does free speech “within the law” mean the law at home or away? There are many Welsh and Scottish higher education providers that have campuses in England as well. Will these duties apply to all of them?

We note that student unions are not public authorities and so are not subject to regulation in the same way. Many of them may be tiny theatre providers; they may be further education providers with a handful of higher education students. Their governing bodies may be a small group of 17 year-old students. Are the provisions in Clause 3 really appropriate for such unions?

If Clause 3 is bad, Clause 7 is even worse. We read in that clause that an individual would be able to refer their complaint to the Office for Students complaints scheme at the same time as pursuing it through a provider or the student union’s internal procedures, which would surely be the appropriate way. It could also be addressed by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, or a court or tribunal. How confusing and cumbersome this is. Surely such complaints should not be escalated; rather, they should be dealt with at the lowest possible level. Currently, the adjudicator considers students’ complaints only once the local process has been completed. For the Office for Students to rush in with a monetary penalty would surely be untimely and disproportionate. We really feel that this is not a reasonable use of the Office for Students’ powers.

At a later date, we shall come on to discuss the director of freedom of speech and academic freedom. It is not at all clear how that post will fit in with all these other complaints processes.

As I say, these amendments have been tabled at the request of students and student unions. On that basis, I beg to move.

Lord Triesman Portrait Lord Triesman (Lab)
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My Lords, this is probably the only appropriate place to raise this point. There was a debate earlier in which my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Finsbury—he may be on the Cross Benches but he is steadfastly a friend—and the noble Baronesses, Lady Fox and Lady Smith of Newnham, took part, about what the core functions of a university are and what its DNA is. I do not resile from what I said about the role of a university in the development of knowledge and the challenge to knowledge, but I would not for a moment suggest that that is the only function.

I come to the other thing that I think universities are fundamentally there for, because the students and student unions are so central to it. Universities are also the place where we see the transmission of knowledge between generations. They are the place in which we try to instil in students the methods best suited to elaborate knowledge and to challenge all spheres of knowledge, and to do so in a way that reflects the fact that it is a community. Those are also fundamental obligations of a university, and it would be very foolish if we were to neglect them.

The strength of the very word “collegiality” is that it means we believe that, in a collegial environment, people should not suppress the views of others, silence others or interfere with their individual rights. Apart from overcoming those negatives, it also cements together a community that has, if I may put it this way, a mutual obligation to proceed with respect. In my view, that is quite central to the DNA of a university.

I make these points because those frequently relatively young people—although it is a much more diverse age group now—are central to what we think about when we think about what universities do and how they should do it. Indeed, we have embodied in other legislation measures to deal with the quality of teaching to ensure that this part of what universities do is at the best standard that can be achieved, and we punish them by not letting them have gold stars or whatever if they fail to do it. Student unions are a part of that education provision, part of that community, and what we try to impose on them becomes extremely significant.

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Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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I take the noble Baroness’s point. Those societies will be expected to abide by a code of practice which will be promulgated to all students. While the societies will not be subjected to the full extent of the regulation that I have been talking about, expectations will be placed on them. I cannot yet tell the noble Baroness what will be contained in the code of practice but, as I have mentioned, that code will receive appropriate publicity.

Lord Triesman Portrait Lord Triesman (Lab)
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To be very clear, I have no difficulty at all with the concept that people in student unions who impede the free speech and academic freedom of others must be dealt with. For the record, I do not have a second’s question about that. I just want us to do things in this Bill that we can actually do. I wonder whether the noble Earl, Lord Howe, might discuss this offline with some of us who have helped to run these kinds of institutions in the past to see whether there is a practical solution to the problem that my noble friend has just illustrated. I do not know about the LSE, but I will lay odds that most student unions find out what their rugby clubs have done months after the event, if they find out at all.

Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)
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They might find out in the newspapers.