It seems every week there is a news story of another academic, a group of students or a vice chancellor detailing threats to academic freedom. Heartbreakingly this has become an even more common occurrence since the Hamas pogrom in Israel on 7 October and the subsequent war in Gaza.
Only this week the UKRI, a UK government body which distributes research funding, has suspended its diversity advisory panel, after a leading member of the British Government publicly criticised members of the panel for their social media comments regarding Hamas and Israel. This led to the resignation of several academics from posts at the UKRI.
And at Cornell University in the US, a student is currently facing charges for threatening to kill Jewish students via a range of graphic social media posts, resulting in his persecution and enhanced security measures now in place for Jewish staff and members on campus.
These are two of the more extreme examples of the impact of the current crisis on academic institutions.
And as angry as they make me, as heartbroken as I am about current events, I have to consider them through the prism of my job – defending freedom of expression.
Freedom of expression is a very broad concept and there are as many definitions as there are forms of expression. But taking the two examples above at hand, academic freedom and freedom of speech are different things. What people debate and discuss in the lecture hall, in a seminar room or on the pages of an academic tome must always be protected. But academics are not afforded special protections outside of the confines of their intellectual endeavours. That’s not a matter of academic freedom, it’s one of freedom of expression and should be considered separately.
At the same time, the events in Cornell equate to hate speech and are not and should not be protected. Hate speech and incitement are against the law and should be dealt with accordingly. And every community, every student should have the right to feel safe on campus – not in fear of their lives. No one should be scared of walking onto their university campus whatever is happening in a war thousands of miles away.
This is all at a time when university campuses are increasingly considered to be the frontline in the ongoing battle to protect free speech.
Earlier this year, the UK saw the passage of The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act.
In the current context, this seems to have muddied the waters between academic freedom and freedom of speech on campus. The new law places an onus on universities, colleges and Students’ Unions to not only protect free speech but to actively promote it. But what does this mean when applied to the views of students and academics who are promoting views outside of their academic specialisms?
The very name of the Act it suggests that those on campus have complete freedom of speech without limitation. They do not; no one does. But as academics they must have complete freedom to teach and challenge without fear or favour (within the confines of the law).
Universities are meant to be seats of academic exploration, cathedrals of learning. They provide a forum for discussion and debate in which new ideas and minority opinions can be considered. The purpose is to expose students to the breadth of views and ideas that exist in their particular discipline and ideally challenge their worldview – allowing them to argue back. On campus, in the classroom – not on a social media platform.
It is always difficult to know what impact these debates and issues are having on campus. How safe academics feel to push the boundaries of their areas of specialism and how secure students feel to question and debate on campus – to ask the unpalatable question, to challenge the status quo. But in the midst of the current gloom and misery I am choosing to take a little bit of hope from a recently published survey.
The National Student Survey from the Office of Students would suggest that this endemic attack on free speech is not as pervasive as we sometimes believe it to be. They asked students from colleges and universities in England how free they felt to express their “ideas, opinions, and beliefs” and 86% said that they felt “free” or “very free”. Only 3% of the 300,000 respondents said that they felt they were ‘not free at all.”
On the face of it, this is good news. We should welcome the fact that an overwhelming number of students feel free to speak their mind and share their opinions. Self censorship is a real problem but not one, it seems, that plagues the majority of today’s students.
But we must ask the 3% why they don’t feel free at all to express themselves on campus. is it threats from external forces like the Chinese Communist Party, is it because of their identity or faith, or is it because they themselves hold minority opinions and are fearful of being challenged. Whatever the reason, 9,000 students who participated in this survey feel silenced. We need to know why and we need to find a way to support them.
In the interim I’m going to focus on the positive and celebrate the fact that we start from a position of academic freedom and that the overwhelming majority of students know that they can express themselves on campus without fear or favour.