Free speech campaigners back Ahmed over Hillman for director job

Toby Young sees ‘campaign’ for Nick Hillman to land job being waged by Lord Willetts, whose rebellion on tort may be fought in Commons

January 31, 2023
The racing goats "Cambridge" and "Oxford" running down the track at the race.with crowds cheering them on to illustrate Free speech campaigners back Ahmed over Hillman for director job
Source: Getty

Backers of the English campus free speech bill have called for Cambridge academic Arif Ahmed to be given a key job ahead of sector thinktank director Nick Hillman.

Toby Young, founder and director of the Free Speech Union, described Professor Ahmed as having credentials as a “champion of free speech” that were “second to none” and suggested that Lord Willetts, the Conservative former universities minister who has led opposition to elements of the free speech bill, has been “campaigning” for Mr Hillman, his former adviser, to be appointed director for freedom of speech and academic freedom.

The government is currently considering amendments made in the House of Lords to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill and must decide its position on those before the bill returns to the House of Commons. Notably, peers scrapped a statutory tort that would allow individuals to sue universities and students’ unions for compensation over alleged breaches of free speech duties, with Lord Willetts a key force in that move.

THE Campus views: Academics must resist the creeping degradation of academic freedom

The legislation will also create the director post within the Office for Students, the sector regulator, while strengthening free speech duties on universities and extending them to students’ unions.

Professor Ahmed, professor of philosophy at Cambridge, is tipped as the preferred choice of prime minister Rishi Sunak for the post of director, who will investigate universities over alleged breaches of free speech and academic freedom duties. Mr Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, is also known to be in the running. Candidates are yet to be notified of any decision on the appointment.

Professor Ahmed led a successful campaign by Cambridge staff against a free speech policy proposed by university leadership that would have required staff and students to be “respectful” of each other’s “differing opinions” and “diverse identities”.

Mr Young, a right-wing commentator whose Free Speech Union is already applying legal pressure to universities, also highlighted Professor Ahmed’s defence of his invitation to gender critical author Helen Joyce to speak at his college, Gonville and Caius, amid controversy.

“Nick was a widely respected special adviser to Lord Willetts and has done a great job at Hepi, but nothing in his career to date suggests he’s as passionate about free speech as Arif,” said Mr Young.

On the right to sue, Lord Willetts said the “double jeopardy” of both the OfS’ new free speech powers and the tort was “excessive”.

“What ministers say to me, of course, is that there’s a powerful campaign group in the Commons that sees things very differently,” he continued, so the government “may well try to reverse it in the Commons”, although it was not certain.

But “with civil litigation in the background”, Lord Willetts said, students’ unions in particular “might start playing safe and say ‘let’s not have any outside speakers’. That’s when the legislation really would have a chilling effect.”

Mr Young said: “The fact that the bill’s opponents in the Lords included Lord Willetts and Willetts has been campaigning for Nick Hillman to get the job suggests he shares Willetts’ reservations about the bill and the need for the statutory tort in its original form. That’s another reason Arif would be a better choice than Nick.”

Mr Hillman said that was “quite a leap in logic. If Toby Young wants to know my thoughts on free speech in English universities, he should ring me and ask.”

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