Dissent? Not today, thank you

September 9, 2005

Freedom of speech is no longer a fashionable cause, laments Frank Furedi. It is suffering from a bad case of academic indifference

In July, the heads of universities were told that they had to sign up to the crusade against terrorism by clamping down on extremist campus groups that promote terrorism. Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, informed vice-chancellors that they had to do their bit to challenge the "evil ideology" responsible for the recent bombings in London.

Rammell claimed that free speech was important but added that "we also have a responsibility to tackle extremism on campus".

Unfortunately, experience indicates that coupling free speech with the demand to "tackle extremism" restricts discussion.

But anyone worried about political fanatics need not be concerned about the protection a university affords to the open exchange of views. In such an environment, there is at least the possibility of confronting all points of view. But the censoring or curbing of dissident ideas only drives them underground where their influence may remain unchecked.

The belief that the way to deal with objectionable ideas is to ban them is not restricted to the UK Government. In recent years, "the right to offend" has been questioned and undermined through numerous speech codes and codes of conduct. Attacks on academic freedom are often launched from within the university. The recent attempt by some Association of University Teachers members to call for a boycott of certain Israeli institutions of higher education indicates that intolerance is not confined to officially appointed censors.

The absence of a serious outcry from colleagues over the attempt to curb the freedom of Israeli academics suggests that any future official clampdown on the influence of Islamist groups is unlikely to provoke a significant reaction. If academics are so eager to give up academic freedom to assist one cause, they will lack the moral resources to object to more curbs to help another cause.

Free speech has ceased to be fashionable. Perhaps this is due to a loss of belief in the idea that it is likely to encourage enlightenment and clarity. Concern with campus extremism expresses the pessimistic conviction that extremists' ideas have so much more appeal than ours that the best reaction is to ban them.

Loss of belief in the creative dimension of academic freedom co-exists with a powerful current of cynicism towards it. No one argues that they are against academic freedom. In principle, everyone is prepared to embrace it.

But in practice, academic freedom is not something that academics are very bothered about. We rarely notice when it is tested and many claim it is not always worth the hassle to defend it.

In recent years, academic freedom has been called into question by the spread of bureaucratic rule-making. The standardisation of evaluation procedures, benchmarking and auditing subject academic life to an external script. At best, academic freedom has an uneasy relationship with regulatory processes. At worst, academics have to design courses that have the right kind of "learning outcomes" and they have to fit in their teaching with the prescribed procedures.

This has not led to an explicit attack on academic freedom. It has simply created an environment in which academic freedom has lost some of its meaning. It is not surprising that the academy has become so indifferent to the fate of freedoms that were hitherto seen as the precondition for intellectual enterprise.

And what will we do if we are asked to root out extremism on the campus? Are we going to manage extremism administratively? Or affirm the importance of academic freedom?

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at Kent University.

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