All 1 Lord Desai contributions to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023

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Tue 28th Jun 2022

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Lord Desai Excerpts
Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I must apologise for going in and out of the Chamber while other noble Lords were speaking; I had not timetabled for all the business that happened between Oral Questions and the start of this debate.

I will first say that I happen to be a martyr in this struggle for academic freedom and freedom of speech. I was a lecturer at LSE in the academic year 1968-69, when at least two of my colleagues got sacked. Do not for a moment believe that we always had academic freedom in this country; nor should we believe that there is academic freedom in the United States, despite the first amendment and all that. The teacher who supervised me—whom I shall not name—had to leave the university overnight because of McCarthyism. He had to come to Oxford for shelter for a few years before he could go back to America. He was told, “Just leave the country and don’t ask any questions before you get called by the state legislature for your views.” He was an econometrician and a mathematical person; he was not even like me, someone with mixed thoughts. We must always ask for some protection.

Obviously, when you are old, you do not like what the young are doing; you think they are completely out of kilter and should be stopped from doing whatever they are doing. Notwithstanding that, I feel that there is a problem with academic freedom. From what I read in the newspapers, there is a problem with cancel culture. This clearly includes the idea that, if you discuss issues of gender or sex, there are bars to discussing those any further. It happened to me: I shall not name the person who stopped me, but when I was discussing International Women’s Day in a debate in your Lordships’ House and tried to make a distinction between people who are born women and those who have chosen to be women, someone immediately got up and said, “Stop this now; don’t go any further. You’re not allowed to go any further.” I thought that was all right and sat down. It did not really matter; I was not saying anything profoundly original.

I think there is a climate where there are certain topics which cannot be discussed. It used to be the case, again in the 1960s, with a man called Professor Eysenck who used to teach somewhere in south London that whenever he appeared at the LSE the most left-wing of the students used to want to prevent him from speaking. I was one of the few people saying: “Let him speak. Speaking does no harm to anybody. He is just expressing an opinion.”

The whole point is that people think speaking causes harm and speaking itself is an offence. This has happened with JK Rowling and the woman at Sussex who was a professor and had to leave.

I think there is a problem. Now, the question really is: does this Bill solve it or does it create other problems? I think that is a matter of detail; it is not a matter of principle. Even if it was true that academic freedom was beautifully protected and everything was fine, it would still not do any harm to have a law passed.

The question to examine is not whether the Bill is necessary but whether we can improve it so that it does more good than harm. It is our duty as the elderly House which has lots of talent in various ways: the people here who run universities, who have been to universities, who are free-thinking people. Let us get together and construct a solution to this problem which does as little harm as possible and as much good as possible.

I am somewhat worried about this thing about universities and foreign money. It almost looks to me like xenophobia, as if all foreign money is suspect and foreigners are not like us; therefore, they are not good enough. If they are giving money, why are they giving it?

I remember I had tutees from China in the great days of Mao. They came and I was able to subvert them. I thought that it was very good that they were there because I was able to tell them how they could think in a way independent of the way they were taught to think. I do not know what happened to them later on.

The fact that people from foreign countries with dubious prospects come to our universities is no problem. Our task is to make them think better, to think freely. Let us make quite sure that the universities satisfy the requirement of economic freedom and protect freedom of speech but, beyond that, let us not interfere too much and ask, “Why did you admit this man from Russia?” We normally give them peerages, but that is not always the right thing to do.

Our task is to make quite sure that our universities are safe to do what they want to do and people do not have to leave or resign or be blackballed just because they have a view which a noisy minority may not like. It is a Bill which we ought to improve and let us go ahead and improve it.