“Quietude”, self-censorship and “right-on” lecturers were among the threats to “academic freedom in illiberal times” identified in a debate organised by online magazine spiked (in association with Academics for Academic Freedom and Times Higher Education) at the House of Commons on 11 November.
Introducing the event, chair Joanna Williams, lecturer in higher education and academic practice at the University of Kent, noted how “students are quick to ban everything from pop songs to ‘lads’ mags”. Along with speech codes and no-platform policies, this had led to a notable “trend for academics to self-censor”.
Bill Rammell, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, declared himself an instinctive enemy of boycotts, blanket bans and no-platform policies, since “open democratic debate is the best way of marginalising violent extremism”.
Yet for Dennis Hayes, professor of education at the University of Derby, “academic freedom doesn’t really exist today, since we have lost the idea of free speech as a foundational value…We don’t even know what our own opinions mean if they are not tested…Quietude now dominates the academy – I want universities more like bags of ferrets, as they used to be.”
Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, argued that “it is important that universities have different governance structures, as this is likely to lead to greater plurality of thought”.
Certain forms of self-censorship were probably inevitable, given that “researchers tend to produce the data which funders want, so they can gain the next grant”, but plurality would at least create a more balanced environment through “different forms of censorship in different places”.
Munira Mirza, London’s deputy mayor for education and culture, spoke of “a general rush to curtail what people can say”, which led to the risk of “freezing out controversial views on racial genetics or environmentalism”.
She was opposed to “a culture where some ideas are just too offensive”, noting how it was now common to see “orchestrated campaigns” in response to someone at a freshers’ fair wearing a T-shirt some religious students found offensive.
Yet in reality, Ms Mirza went on, “young people are used to being insulted and offended, and know how to cope with it”.
Today’s universities, however, were often about “training individuals to feel vulnerable and sorry for themselves”, as in the case of a “right-on” tutor at Oxford who had said to her: “As a woman, do you find Shakespeare offensive?”