Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Leader of the House
Lord Wallace of Saltaire Portrait Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, this Bill is unnecessary and un-Conservative. It addresses a problem that is far less severe than right-wing think tanks have claimed, and for which the Government’s White Paper admitted that there is very little supporting evidence. Ministers who preach deregulation and shrinking of the role of government are introducing a Bill to impose burdensome and costly new regulations on British universities—the sort of thing that authoritarian Governments in Hungary and Russia impose to limit critical debate and cripple civil society. This is not what a Government who claim to be leading the democratic world against authoritarian regimes should be doing.

It is also an orphan Bill. Those who pushed for it in government—Munira Mirza, the champion of culture wars in No. 10, and Gavin Williamson and his special advisers in the DfE—have now left. Perhaps for that reason, the Bill loitered in the Commons through the last Session, giving hope to some of us that reasonable voices in government had thought it wise to let it die. But here it is, staggering on because wiser counsels within the Conservative Party have not prevailed, pushed onwards by the American and Australian-trained campaigners in No. 10 who think that fighting culture wars appeals to the Conservative base.

Our Prime Minister has been fond of the boast that the UK is “a soft power superpower”. The Minister will recall that the integrated review of foreign and security policy devoted an entire chapter to the importance of soft power. It listed as its most valued institutional components the BBC, the British Council, the quality and financial scale of our overseas development programme, the reputation of our universities, and the strength of our cultural sector. Since then, the Government have cut the aid budget, sidelined the British Council and repeatedly attacked and financially weakened the BBC. Now this Bill threatens to weaken the global standing and reputation of our universities by extending government oversight of academic debate, appointments and promotions.

There is a problem of toleration of dissent by the current student generation in our universities. The Higher Education Policy Institute has just published a survey which indicates that students have become more protective of what they see as vulnerable minorities, less willing to accept that freedom of speech necessarily includes the right to offend and less willing to tolerate university teachers whose views clash sharply with their own. We have seen a small but painful number of instances in which universities have failed to defend their staff in such circumstances, most sharply the University of Sussex in the case of Professor Stock.

University leadership needs to underline the importance of tolerance of different views among staff and students, but in a free society that role should be played by university leaders and not be imposed by government. In any case, how severe and widespread a problem is this for the over 100 universities? Is the challenge we face worse than in in previous cycles of student activism, which universities have come through without requiring heavy-handed government intervention?

Gavin Williamson in his preface to last year’s White Paper specifically deplored attempts to block Ministers from speaking at and ambassadors from visiting universities. The very first lecture I gave as a newly appointed lecturer at Manchester University in January 1968 was disrupted by a protest at the suspension of a student for assaulting an Education Minister the night before. I went to a ceremony at King’s College London some weeks ago to unveil a portrait of one of the students who had disrupted my lecture, who has since become an adviser to Governments and a globally recognised academic.

Some noble Lords may be old enough to remember the Stop the Seventy Tour and the wider student campaign against apartheid South Africa. My wife can still remember the song she and others sang as they blocked the South African ambassador from speaking at Oxford University. I have just read a memoir of the Stop the Seventy Tour which confirms that at least two of its most activist members have since become Members of this House.

Last year, I spoke to a number of vice-chancellors about this Bill and the issues it raises. One retired VC reminded me that he had struggled to maintain order on his campus in the face of deliberately provocative speakers invited by the then chairman of his student Conservative Association, one John Bercow. A current vice-chancellor told me that the biggest problem of this sort he faces is keeping the peace between his Chinese and Hong Kong students.

There is nothing new about student protest or arguments about the limits of freedom of speech in universities—and I have been an academic for 40 or more years. The question is whether the imposition of a heavy external burden of intrusive regulation, with the introduction of a new tort that will transfer large sums of money from university funds to lawyers through litigation, is a proportionate response to the limited number of unacceptable instances we have seen, above all related to trans rights. I suggest that the proposals are disproportionate. This extension of state interference over autonomous institutions is authoritarian and not Conservative.

The Bill covers not only students and student unions but also staff, visiting speakers and the loosely defined “members” of higher education providers. I understand that, as a retired professor, I may count as a “member” of the LSE, with standing to sue or be sued under the Bill—I shall have to check with the director. The provision that permits discontented staff to sue if they consider

“the likelihood of their securing promotion or different jobs at the provider being reduced”

opens a huge can of worms. I declare an interest: I was once passed over for promotion at the department of government at Manchester on the grounds that I was “too interested in politics”.

The anti-intellectual right in the United States, with its claims that universities are hotbeds of liberalism actively discriminating against honest conservative thinkers, has close links with right-wing bodies in the UK. Policy Exchange in London has claimed on its website to have provided the foundations for the Bill, with almost all of its recommendations in two reports being accepted. I regret that the noble Lord, Lord Godson, is not here today to take credit for that achievement. He might also wish to tell us how much of the significant American funding for Policy Exchange has come from those right-wing foundations that have fuelled Trumpian Republicanism. Think tanks, like universities, should be transparent about their foreign funding.

I was struck when I read the Policy Exchange papers that they had almost as many references to American examples as British, including some from hard-right foundations. They included the claim that the staff of British universities are overwhelmingly left-wing: 80% apparently failed to vote Conservative or UKIP in the last two general elections. Given that over 20% of staff in most universities are not British citizens, and that a large proportion of that staff are scientists and medics and not particularly interested in politics, I find this statistic completely unbelievable.

I am concerned, however, about the undertow of anti-intellectual, anti-rational argument from right-wing critics about Britain’s alleged liberal elite and its allegedly malign hold on our cultural and educational institutions. The Times gave Douglas Murray two pages last Saturday to develop this theme, in which he stated that it’s now virtually impossible for a climate change sceptic to gain appointment as a university chancellor or museum director. If challenging the allegedly oppressive liberal cultural elite means insisting on climate change sceptics being appointed to senior academic positions regardless of their attitudes to evidence and reasoned debate, then our universities and their reputation are, indeed, at risk.

The shadow of Brexit hangs over this, of course, as over so many other aspects of British politics and public debate. The claims that appointments and promotions are biased against conservatives comes from leading members of Historians for Britain and a handful of political scientists. There is no evidence that I am aware of of structural bias against conservative academics; indeed, the founder of UKIP was a friend of mine and a colleague at the LSE. Opening appointment and promotion procedures to challenges over alleged political bias would be a serious incursion into the autonomy of our universities and a feast for lawyers in civil cases.

This is not the first time that structural bias in universities has been alleged. When Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, she was determined to abolish the Social Science Research Council. She believed, as a hard scientist, that there was no such thing as social science; that what was taught in universities was intrinsically socialist. She asked Lord Rothschild to report. He, thankfully, responded that careful social and economic research was essential to good government, and that public money should continue to underwrite it. She nevertheless insisted on removing the word “science” from what has since then been labelled the Economic and Social Research Council.

Allegations about left-wing bias in universities focus on social science and humanities, and above all on historians, but history faculties have always argued among themselves, often bitterly. The political balance among academic historians in Britain has been adversely affected by the choice too many of our self-declared patriotic historians have taken to emigrate and take better-paid posts in the United States. Different disciplines have different tendencies. One vice-chancellor told me that his university has a structurally left-wing sociology department and a structurally right-wing economics department: it goes, he said, with the disciplines. Those who want to use this Bill as a lever to promote more solidly conservative views in our higher education institutions should reflect that Britain’s most clearly conservative institution, after the University of Buckingham, is Christ Church College, Oxford: not the greatest example of toleration of dissent and diversity.

Others will touch on the tangle of vexatious lawsuits that this Bill will impose on universities. I briefly mention the comment of another vice-chancellor that it will be completely impossible, in the current heated political atmosphere, to find a candidate for the post of free speech champion who will be acceptable to all sides. Nor can we have confidence in Ofcom assuming this role, when the noble Lord, Lord Wharton, as chair, associated himself with Viktor Orbán and the authoritarian right at a recent Budapest conference. I speak with particular feeling on this as a former visiting professor at the Central European University and a member of its senate in Budapest in its early years, when Viktor Orbán still called himself a liberal.

At a time when trust in this Government is at an all-time low, when suspicion of No.10’s political appointments is high, when the contamination of the Conservative Party by American Republicanism should concern all decent Conservatives, we will have to do our best, as the revising Chamber, to mitigate the damage this Bill could do to the global reputation and standing of our universities.