At a conference in Birmingham on Boxing Day, the Minister for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson (Boris’s little brother) gave a speech about free speech. It was reported by the Guardian and the BBC amongst others, and the full text is here.
Our universities … should be places that open minds not close them, where ideas can be freely challenged and prejudices exposed.
But in universities in America and increasingly in the United Kingdom, there are countervailing forces of censorship, where groups have sought to stifle those who do not agree with them in every way under the banner of “safe spaces” or “no-platforming”.
However well-intentioned, the proliferation of such safe spaces, the rise of no-platforming, the removal of ‘offensive’ books from libraries and the drawing up of ever more extensive lists of banned “trigger” words are undermining the principle of free speech in our universities.
The reason for the apparently curious timing may be that a new regulating body, the Office for Students, is now in existence, and will take over from HEFCE in April.
As part of our reforms to higher education, we have set up a new regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), which, as its name suggests, will regulate the university sector in a way that puts the interests of students first.
Created by the Higher Education & Research Act 2017, the OfS will come into being next week.
Promoting freedom of speech within the law will be at the heart of its approach to the regulation of our higher education system.
The OfS will go further than its predecessor in promoting freedom of speech.
In the Act, we extended the existing statutory duty on universities to secure free speech in the Education (No.2) Act 1986 so that it will apply to all providers of higher education registered with the OfS.
Furthermore, as a condition of registration with the new regulator, we are proposing that all universities benefitting from public money must demonstrate a clear commitment to free speech in their governance documents.
And the OfS will in turn use its regulatory powers to hold them to account for ensuring that lawful freedom of speech is upheld by their staff and students.
The BBC and Guardian articles linked above mention that the new body will be able to fine universities if they fail to uphold these values.
But what relevance does all this have for us here? Well, speaking on the Today Programme on Radio 4, Johnson talked about the OfS and freedom of speech, but went further, linking free speech to scientific progress, as reported in the Telegraph:
Universities will be less able to make scientific breakthroughs if they do not tackle ‘safe space’ culture, minister warns
“I think it’s important that students going through our higher education system do learn to be resilient and deal with controversial opinions, to deal with views that challenge their most profoundly held beliefs or views that simply make them uncomfortable. Because if we fail to do that we will soon be on a slippery slope that ends up with a society that is less able to make scientific breakthroughs, less able to be innovative and frankly less able also to resist injustice. We need people to be able to deal with the uncomfortable.”
Clearly this has relevance to the climate debate, where controversial opinions are marginalized and attacked.
You can read more about the OfS from the official announcement, or click the image at the top of this post to read an article at Varsity. It has 15 board members and will be chaired by Sir Michael Barber, who had an education role in Tony Blair’s government. The CEO is Nicola Dandridge, formerly the head of Universities UK, who provoked some controversy in 2013 by defending gender segregation at some university events. Nobody seemed to bat an eyelid over her appointment, but the twittersphere went into meltdown over the appointment of someone called Toby Young to the board.
Who is Toby Young? Apparently he’s a journalist and involved with setting up Free Schools. It seems that his offences include speaking out against the bandwagon of political correctness, expressing in public his appreciation of female figures, and being right-wing.
As the hysteria mounted, Toby Young’s website crashed under the strain, leading to bogus claims that he had deleted a post, and many other untrue statements. Guido comments on the outrage, saying that Young “is entirely unqualified apart from having worked at Harvard and Cambridge, being a visiting fellow of the University of Buckingham, a Fulbright Commissioner, co-founder of four free schools and director of the New Schools Network.”
There is, inevitably, a petition calling for him to be fired, which I think is delightfully ironic in view of Johnson’s speech about censorship and free speech.
Update 9 Jan
Jo Johnson has been reshuffled, to Minister of State at the Department for Transport and Minister for London. He will be replaced as Minister for Universities by Sam Gyimah.