The political suppression of academic freedom is no right-wing myth

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The political suppression of academic freedom is no right-wing myth

When Policy Exchange published evidence last week that free speech is being suppressed in British universities, Jo O’Grady, secretary-general of the University and Colleges Union (UCU) dismissed it as “a myth” and a “think tank-inspired bogeyman”. Judging by the Guardian newspaper, she was expressing a view now firmly entrenched on the left, namely, that the current fuss about threats to academic freedom is all a right-wing conspiracy.

Two years ago, Dr Will Davies, a political economist at Goldsmith’s College, published a long article in the Guardian under the title, “The free speech panic: how the right concocted a crisis”. The claim that certain people are being silenced, he argued, is often just a convenient spin on the way the less controllable world of social media “means prominent voices have lost authority”. Just over a year later, Nasrine Malik, a Guardian columnist, wrote “The myth of the free speech crisis”, where she asserted that the “conventional wisdom that free speech is under assault, that university campuses have succumbed to an epidemic of no-platforming… and that Enlightenment values that protected the right to free expression and individual liberty are under threat” is designed to secure, not freedom of speech, but “the licence to speak with impunity”.

Then earlier this year, Dr Evan Smith, a historian at Flinders University in Australia and author of No Platform: A History of Anti-Fascism, Universities, and the Limits of Free Speech (2020), added his voice to the swelling Guardian chorus with “The university ‘free speech crisis’ has been a right-wing myth for 50 years”. Invoking both Davies and Malik, he claimed that the mythical crisis “cannot be divorced from the wider rise of the global far right”, is being used to demonise ‘woke’ students, and “often masquerades [as] a desire for freedom from criticism”.

The left’s echo-chamber is plain wrong. There is hard evidence that the free speech and academic freedom of significant minorities of university students and lecturers in the UK are being inhibited. Those currently affected range from Conservatives on the right, through Leave supporters on both right and left, to feminist critics of transgender ideology on the left. This is true, notwithstanding the conclusion of the March 2018 report of the House of Commons & House of Lords’ Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR), which stated that “we did not find the wholesale censorship of debate in universities which media coverage has suggested, and most of the 33 student union officers who responded to the survey expressed confidence that they and their companions can speak freely”.

But then, they would, wouldn’t they? Student unions tend to represent only a minority of students, their officers usually elected by less than one-third of the student body, and in recent years they have tended to focus on a particularly intolerant strain of identity politics, which defines opposing views as threatening and harmful. It is hardly surprising that “they and their companions” feel free to speak their minds. What we need to know is how free are those who are not their political companions.

In downplaying the scale of the problem, the JCHR’s conclusion echoed another report that had appeared three months previously. In December 2017 the Policy Institute at King’s College London published its findings on freedom of expression in UK universities, which were based on the 2,153 online survey responses from students. This found that 71 per cent of students did not feel that free speech was threatened at their university, and that 69 per cent did not feel that academic freedom was threatened.

Nevertheless, the King’s report did find that that a full 25 per cent felt unable to express their views because of fear of disagreeing with their peers, and it admitted that this did suggest a “chilling effect”. What was most telling, however, were the views of students belonging to political minorities. The King’s report found that a full 59 per cent of the small Conservative-voting contingent (9 per cent of students) agreed that “students with conservative views are reluctant to express them at my university”. Moreover, 37 per cent of Labour and Liberal Democrat students agreed with this assessment.

Confirmation of such a “chilling effect” among students was provided in 2019 by Eric Kaufmann and Tom Simpson in their Policy Exchange report, “Academic Freedom in the UK”, whose poll of 505 UK undergraduate students found that 61 per cent of those who supported the UK’s leaving the European Union did not feel “comfortable espousing that view in class” — a view corroborated by 53 per cent of their Remain-supporting peers. The report concluded that “there is evidence of chilling effects on students’ speech, such that some [nationally] mainstream political views cannot be discussed in the classroom”. Quite apart from discrete and overt incidents of no-platforming, then, self-censorship — which stems from the actual or perceived policing of norms in the university —affects a majority of Conservative and Leave-supporting students.

In addition to causing students to bite their tongues, an intimidating ethos also causes professional academics to censor themselves. In April 2018, Cambridge University, lobbied by academics and students in the name of “social justice”, withdrew its visiting fellowship from Professor Jordan Peterson, because of a single, ambiguous photograph. The following month St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, yielded to pressure and sacked Dr Noah Carl, because 586 academics and 874 students — many from outside his field — deemed his line of research to be “ethically suspect”. In January 2019 Oxford University had to assign security guards to Professor Selina Todd, a self-declared socialist historian of the working class and feminism in Britain, after her criticism of transgender ideology attracted threats of physical violence. And in April 2020 the same professor was disinvited to address a conference at Exeter College, Oxford, because of objections from transgender activists.

From this, it would be entirely reasonable to infer that when other academics, especially junior ones, observe such things happening at the UK’s leading universities, they will tend to become more inhibited in what they say and write, what they conduct research on, and whom they associate with. There is empirical evidence to confirm the inference. In December 2017 my own “Ethics and Empire” project at Oxford provoked three online mass protests, the abrupt resignation of my main collaborator, and a public boycott by the Centre for Global History. Invited to attend a conference associated with the project some few months later, a junior research fellow accepted only on condition that his name and face appear nowhere on the conference materials, lest his senior colleagues find out and damage his career prospects.

That the “chilling effect” upon professional academics of a repressive ethos is not limited to a few eccentric cases was indicated as far back as 2017 by the report prepared for Jo O’Grady’s own University and College Union (UCU), “Academic Freedom in the UK: Legal and Normative Protection in a Comparative Context”. This found that “UCU members report statistically significantly higher levels of systematic abuse of their academic freedom… than their European counterparts”. For example, 23.1 per cent of UCU respondents (compared to 14.1 per cent of EU respondents) reported being bullied on account of their academic views, and 26.6 per cent reported being subjected to psychological pressure (EU = 15.7 per cent). Thirty-five per cent admitted to self-censorship, for fear of negative repercussions, such as loss of privileges, demotion, physical harm (EU = 19.1 per cent). It would be reasonable to assume that academic views are unlikely to provoke an inhibiting reaction, unless they contain unpopular social, moral, or political elements. And the UCU report bore that out. Of four specific reasons for attracting hostile attention — sexual orientation, ethnicity, “gender”, and political views — the last was perceived as the most common (at 9.3 per cent, compared to an EU figure of 4.5 per cent).

Policy Exchange’s fresh report, “Academic Freedom in the UK: Protecting viewpoint diversity”, substantiates and specifies this evidence of the suppression of political diversity. It finds that academics on both the left and the right are willing to discriminate on political grounds in making appointments, in deciding promotions, and in awarding grants. However, since there are far more academics who lean to the left (more than 80 per cent) than to the right (less than 20 per cent), the overall effect on conservative academics is much greater. Consequently, right-leaning professors tend to perceive their professional environment as far more hostile to their political views than do their centrist or left-leaning colleagues. Naturally, this has a “chilling” effect: right-wing academics who are mindful of their careers censor themselves, going into inner exile and keeping their conservative thoughts to themselves.

Thanks to Policy Exchange, it is now clearer than ever that the threat to academic freedom in UK universities is no right-wing myth. In May 2019, I organised a conference in Oxford on “Academic Freedom under Threat: What’s to be Done?” (Podcasts of the lectures are available here.) Aware of the Guardian’s scepticism, I made a point of selecting speakers and participants with a range of political views. I even invited a Guardian journalist, who came.  I also decided that the intellectually honest thing to do would be to invite one of the sceptics to join us and tell us why the basic assumption of the conference were wrong. So, I invited Will Davies. I told him that he would be in a minority of one, but that we would nevertheless value hearing what he had to say. He replied promptly and succinctly, declining the invitation. The reason he gave, however, was not that he wasn’t available, merely that he wasn’t “interested”.

Member ratings
  • Well argued: 73%
  • Interesting points: 81%
  • Agree with arguments: 68%
37 ratings - view all

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