Freedom on UK campuses is threatened. We need to discuss how to protect it

As part of a new report on academic freedom in the UK, Index CEO Ruth Smeeth discusses why debate makes us better as both individuals and a society

03 Aug 2020
Birkbeck University (Photo: Matt Buck / Flickr)
A student reads on the lawn at Birkbeck University in London. Credit: Matt Buck/Flickr

Just 37% of UK academics have said they would feel comfortable sitting next to someone who, in relation to transgender rights, advocates gender-critical feminist views, a new report on academic freedom in the UK has revealed. The report by Policy Exchange, released today, is one of the largest representative samples of UK- based academics carried out in recent years. It explores the concern that strongly-held political attitudes are restricting the freedom of those who disagree to research and teach on contested subjects. The report also proposes what might be done, in the form of legislation and other measures, to ensure that universities support intellectual dissent and all lawful speech is protected on campus.

Protecting academic freedoms was one of the founding principles of Index in 1971 and continues to be an area that we are concerned about, so we very much welcome the debate inspired by this report and look forward to hearing from other voices.

Read Index CEO Ruth Smeeth’s foreword for the report:

“It was recently suggested to me that I might have been a target of a little too much free speech in recent years, so it could be viewed as strange that I am so passionate about protecting our collective rights to free speech. But honestly, I have a romantic view of one of our most important human rights.

Free speech should be challenging; it should drive debate and ultimately force all of us to continually reflect on our own views. Free speech should manifest in different ways in different forums. In literature, it should drive our intellectual curiosity about the world around us. In journalism, it should shine a light on the powerful and ensure that the world is informed. And in academia, it should drive debate about the status quo demanding that we continually evolve as a society. It’s only by the guarantee of this core human right that we can ensure that we are the best that we can be, that our arguments are robust and that they can sustain criticism. Simply put, debate makes us better as individuals and as a society, it also makes our arguments more rounded and demands of us the intellectual rigour that drives positive change.

That’s why this publication is so important. Throughout our history, we’ve seen a cyclical approach towards academic freedom, but the reality is that only when our centres of learning are truly independent have we thrived as a society. This research isn’t about determining who is right or wrong, or whose voice is more valuable on any given issue but rather the proposals are designed to ensure that there is still a free and fair debate on our campuses. That the academic freedom that we all should cherish is given the protections it needs. It does the country no good if our educators, our academics, our scholars and most importantly our students feel that they can’t speak or engage without fear of retribution.

We all know that legislation is not a panacea to the chilling effect of what is happening in our public space for anyone that challenges the status quo. It can’t and won’t change the culture on campus but what it can do and what this document squarely aims to do is inform, engage and start a debate about what should be important to us. As a society, we need to have our own national conversation about our core human rights and how they should manifest in the twenty-first century. We need to decide collectively where the lines should be between hate speech and free speech, between academic inquiry and ‘research’ designed to incite, between journalism and purveyors of fake news. This research is an important part of that conversation.”

Please read the report in full here.

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