English minister’s academic freedom broadside ‘confects conflict’

Gavin Williamson’s call for OfS to ‘support individual academics’ in curriculum rows could ‘set up wall with university leadership’

February 15, 2021
A student in an African-style jumper speaks to demonstrators outside University of Oxford’s All Souls College
Source: Getty

The education secretary’s call for the independent English regulator to “support individual academics” involved in controversies around curriculum content suggests “a tendency to confect conflict” and ultimately “undermines public trust and confidence” in his office, sector figures said.

Gavin Williamson stepped up the level of political rhetoric in his most recent letter of guidance to the Office for Students. The document voiced support for OfS plans to judge universities on absolute baseline thresholds on “quality”, including the proportion of students on each course going into “managerial and professional” jobs, which have already attracted strong concern from universities. If universities fall short of these baselines, Mr Williamson said, the OfS should “move immediately to more robust measures, including monetary penalties, the revocation of degree awarding powers in subjects of concern, suspending aspects of a provider’s registration or, ultimately, deregistration”, which would strip an institution’s students of access to loan funding.

It remains to be seen whether the OfS – soon to be chaired by Conservative peer Lord Wharton of Yarm, an appointment criticised by Labour as “cronyism” – will take that request seriously.

On free speech and academic freedom, Mr Williamson said that “while providers are rightly free to determine the content of their courses” – a provision of the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act – “university administrators and heads of faculty should not, whether for ideological reasons or to conform to the perceived desires of students, pressure or force teaching staff to drop authors or texts that add rigour and stretch to a course”.

He continued: “The OfS should robustly challenge providers that have implemented such policies and clearly support individual academics whose academic freedom is being diminished.”

That appears to refer to student campaigns to “decolonise the curriculum”, seen at several universities in recent years.

The Sunday Telegraph reported that the government would appoint a ‘free-speech champion’ within the OfS, with the power to fine universities or student unions judged to wrongly restrict free speech, and take action if people are disciplined for their views.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and a former special adviser to Conservative universities minister Lord Willetts in his time in government, said the approach taken by Mr Williamson in the letter could be “setting up a wall between the regulator and the leadership of universities”, in favour of academics involved in free speech or academic freedom disputes, which would be an unusual approach for a regulator. He asked: “Would [the schools regulator] Ofsted get involved in taking up the cases of individual teachers against headteachers?”

The letter suggests that “we are going to be entering even choppier waters in relations between the regulator and some institutions”, he added.

Sir David Bell, the vice-chancellor of the University of Sunderland and a former Department for Education permanent secretary, said he did not recognise “the kind of situation referred to in the secretary of state’s letter”.

He added: “Perhaps it points to a tendency to confect conflict, with and within universities, when the reality – more prosaically – is that we work together well, including with our students and staff, to manage and deal with legitimate argument and disagreement.”

Smita Jamdar, head of education at the law firm Shakespeare Martineau, discussed the academic freedom section of Mr Williamson’s letter in a blog published on the firm’s website, writing that “public law requires guidance from the secretary of state to be clear, capable of being implemented and relevant to the matter in hand”.

“In my view this guidance fails on all counts,” she adds.

Noting that the courts have “repeatedly refused to become adjudicators of matters of academic judgement”, Ms Jamdar says that section of the letter is “bad guidance…because producing guidance that cannot really be implemented and so must ultimately be withdrawn or modified undermines public trust and confidence in the authority of the office of secretary of state”.


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Reader's comments (4)

Those who pretend to be non-ideological are just as ideological as everyone else: it's just pervasive (and complex). Terry Eagleton, _Ideology: An Introduction_.
This sums up what gets missed, academics don't notice their own ideology because the environment is uncritically progressive, left-leaning and very middle class. Very modest push back on whatever is the slogan de jour is thus greeted with horror. People therefore genuinely cannot recognise descriptions of a free speech problem on campus, because to their minds the voices that get silenced are flat earthers or fascists, and no great harm is done.
Universities rarely pressure faculty members directly. They stay vague but clear enough for the message to be understood. In my Department, for example, some senior lecturer circulated an email asking everyone to include more women and BAME authors on the reading list because that is what the students are expecting from us, also in light of our Athena Swan application. It was clear she was informally speaking for the Deaprtmental leadership by saying "we are asking you to...". She wouldn't specify what the consequences would be if we didn't do it. But ultimately it's clear that if you want a promotion or anything else ever again, you better follow this guidance. On another occasion, I was told that I shouldn't send too many students to the Director of Teaching for behavioural issues because it would reflect poorly on me as an instructor and I surely didn't want to risk a conflict with the university leadership or even getting fired for angering our customers. On yet another occasion, I was asked by the Departmental leadership to include trigger warnings when I had asked the students to read an evolutionary psychology paper from a reputable journal because of its unethical, harmful contents, and ideally I would take it off the reading list. In all of these cases, the typical strategy is to talk in person and never leave any paper trail, build up plausible threats but never be very specific as to what the punishment will be exactly, and if need be, ask non-leadership colleagues to spread the word in order to maintain plausible deniability by the leadership. No regulator will ever be able to do anything against this as long as there is no proper self-governance by academics. I am thinking about emigrating to a country where that is still happening.
I don't think that the 'office for students' has much credibility in academic circles anyway, so fatuous remarks from Williamson just confirm that it has no real use and is of no help to institutions... and doesn't even serve students well. Thinking that any form of diversifying the curriculum will diminish its rigor is a negative approach, look at it as enrichment and introducing everyone to new stuff, developing students who have a truly global appreciation of whatever it is that they are studying rather than thinking that it's somehow fixing something that is deemed to be flawed. Expansion is never a bad thing, provided that the new material you include is subject to academic rigor and not merely put there because of the ethnicity of its author not because of its contribution to what you are teaching.


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