STATEMENT
The Government's policy paper on higher education: free speech and academic freedom

Index on Censorship responds to seven specific policy proposals, including the appointment of a Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion

17 Feb 2021
BY INDEX ON CENSORSHIP
Photo: Photo Mix

Index on Censorship was founded by writers and scholars, nearly half a century ago, in order to provide a bulwark against censorship. One of our founders, Stephen Spender, stated on our launch that: “The writers and scholars whom one relies on to support (Index) would obviously include those at universities. For the universities represent the developing international consciousness which depends so much on the free interchange of people, and of ideas.”

Which is why we are so intrigued by the Government’s publication of a policy paper outlining their plans to protect free speech and academic freedom on campus in England.  Index supports all efforts to protect academic freedom and will work with all stakeholders to protect this core right and while there is much to be applauded in the sentiments outlined, the devil, as always, is in the detail.

The policy paper does touch on one of the most dangerous threats to our collective academic freedom but it doesn’t suggest any policy prescriptions to address the influence of hostile nations in both limiting speech on campus and affecting the curriculum. In recent days, we have seen reports of academics being investigated for breaching national security laws because of their dealings with China. There have been ongoing reports of interference on campus both in terms of the curriculum and the work of student societies. This is where we need a strong government intervention – otherwise these hostile acts will continue unabated.

The Government has outlined seven specific policy proposals ranging from changing the onus on Higher Education providers to be proactive in their defence of academic freedom rather than passive, to the appointment of a Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion who while working under the auspices of the Office for Students and will have the authority to act as an Ombudsman for complaints related to academic freedom.

Fundamentally the majority of these proposals are actually tweaks to the current legislative framework which already applies to English Universities, with the exception of the new appointment of a Free Speech Champion. In a positive light this could therefore be seen as an effort to simplify the current legal framework in order for people to better understand their rights and therefore they will feel empowered to demand genuine academic freedom.

However, our fear is that this isn’t the case. The Government have recognised that there is a problem on campus which is having a chilling effect in specific specialisms and leading to intolerance rather than debate at some of our academic institutions. This is however a cultural problem and you simply can’t legislate for cultural change – you need the carrot as well as the stick and this is missing from the policy paper.

It is also somewhat Orwellian to appoint a government Champion to determine what is and what is not free speech.

Fundamentally, Index welcomes this renewed commitment to academic freedom and will work with all stakeholders to try and ensure this works – even the new Free Speech Champion…  We just wonder if the Government may have been wiser to focus its efforts on ensuring that external pressures from hostile governments were being robustly resisted.

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