British academia criticises state proposals on funding and free speech

Ministers not ‘cancel culture’ biggest threat to campus, University and College Union says

Universities, lecturers and students have criticised British government proposals to deny funding to institutions that fail to “actively promote free speech”, warning that they could impinge on academic freedom and university autonomy.

The proposals would allow speakers whose invitations are withdrawn because of student objections to sue universities and student unions for compensation and mandate the appointment of a “free speech champion” to investigate complaints.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson said the measures were a necessary response to what he described as the chilling effect of "silencing" the expression of unpopular views in universities.

“Free speech underpins our democratic society and our universities have a long and proud history of being places where students and academics can express themselves freely, challenge views and cultivate an open mind. But I am deeply worried about the chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring,” he said.


Sanctions for breaches

“That is why we must strengthen free speech in higher education, by bolstering the existing legal duties and ensuring strong, robust action is taken if these are breached.”

The government’s proposals, which will be the subject of a consultation before legislation is drawn up, would introduce a new registration condition on free speech and academic freedom for universities, with the power to impose sanctions for breaches. Universities and student unions would be required to “actively promote” free speech and individuals could sue both for failure to fulfil that duty.

The proposals are similar to ideas promoted by Policy Exchange, a right-wing think tank close to Boris Johnson's government. They follow a number of incidents that received wide reporting in the conservative press, including the last-minute cancellation of an invitation to former home secretary Amber Rudd because of her role in the Windrush scandal that saw people wrongfully deported to the Caribbean.


Conservatives have made common cause with some feminists who oppose transgender rights, a number of whom have had invitations to speak at universities withdrawn after attention was drawn to some of their previous statements or associations. But the National Union of Students said there was no evidence of a freedom of expression crisis on campus and student unions facilitated thousands of events every year.

The Russell Group, which represents Britain's leading universities, said its members were committed to protecting free speech on campus but warned the government against too heavy-handed an approach to the issue.

“It is important that proposals in this Government policy paper, if taken forward, are evidence-based and proportionate, with due care taken to ensure academic freedom and institutional autonomy,” the group said in a statement.

The policy paper asserts that the proposals aim to protect lecturers as well as students and outside speakers but Jo Grady,  general secretary of the University and College Union, which represents staff, said they were misdirected.

“In reality the biggest threats to academic freedom and free speech come not from staff and students, nor from so-called ‘cancel culture’, but from ministers’ own attempts to police what can and cannot be said on campus,” she said.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times