Oxford study shaping free speech plans ‘could have been improved’

Ethics approval for survey shaping government policy should still stand, says university panel

March 2, 2021
A view of the Radcliffe Camera through a gate at the University of Oxford in England

University of Oxford research used as the basis for the Westminster government’s campus free speech plans “could have been improved”, but its ethics approval should still stand, the institution has ruled.

report on academic freedom in the UK published by Policy Exchange last year was co-authored by Tom Simpson, an associate professor of philosophy and public policy at Oxford and an associate fellow at the right-wing thinktank. It urged the government to extend statutory free speech duties to students’ unions and appoint a director for academic freedom to the English sector regulator.

Both proposals were adopted in the government’s February policy paper, which frequently cites the thinktank report, including polling which found that “a significant number of current and retired academics choose to self-censor” their political views. That refers to the report’s YouGov survey of 484 serving and 336 retired academics, which found that 32 per cent of right-wingers “have refrained from airing views in teaching and research”.

The Policy Exchange report also referred to separate “initial data-gathering” conducted using SurveyMonkey, saying that “due to a lack of covering information, the data collected has been deleted and that strand of work discontinued”.

In relation to the YouGov survey, Oxford’s research ethics manager said in an email to John Holmwood, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Nottingham, that “the participants ought to have been provided with more information about the project to inform their decisions to participate”.

Last month the manager said in another email to Professor Holmwood that the central university research ethics committee had backed the conclusions of “an internal panel…convened to undertake a thorough and comprehensive review of this case”.

An earlier email summarised the panel’s findings by saying that it had reviewed the original ethics application and found that “while there were aspects of both the review of the application and the information provided to participants in the YouGov survey that could have been improved, the original ethics approval of this application should stand”.

An Oxford spokesman said: “An earlier issue with a separate survey had already been fully dealt with and the data deleted, which is acknowledged in the research report. That issue does not apply to the YouGov survey.”

Jonathan Portes, professor of economics and public policy at King’s College London, said the finding about 32 per cent of scholars with right-leaning views self-censoring “appeared to be based on no more than 10 working academics…a laughably small sample size”.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Free speech plans based on ‘subpar’ research

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