Tory campus free speech bill would ‘stoke new culture war’

Ex-Tory adviser pushes plan to legislate to create ‘national academic freedom champion’ to ‘lead on sanctions where appropriate’

December 17, 2019
Source: Getty

The new Conservative government should legislate to create a “national academic freedom champion”, while restrictions on “low-quality courses” in universities could rebalance funding towards further education in a shift tailored to the Conservatives’ new electorate, according to a former Tory adviser and senior civil servant.

With the UK’s general election having brought to power a Conservative government with a significant Commons majority, sector attention will focus on the party’s manifesto commitments, which notably include pledges to “strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities” and to “tackle the problem of…low-quality courses” in England.

A paper published by Policy Exchange, titled The First Hundred Days: how the Government can implement the pledges in its 2019 election manifesto, says that ministers should move quickly to “introduce an academic freedom and free speech on campus bill” and thus adopt a plan advocated in a recent report on the issue by the thinktank.

Universities are a potential target if the Conservatives seek to bolster their increased support from working-class, largely non-graduate voters in towns across the Midlands and North by waging “culture wars” against institutions they perceive as hostile to Tory values.

Iain Mansfield, head of education, skills and science at Policy Exchange, formerly special adviser to Jo Johnson in his brief return as universities minister, said key recommendations in the thinktank’s free speech report included “extending the statutory duty on freedom of speech to include students and student unions as well as HEIs”.

The report also recommended “that the Office for Students should appoint a national academic freedom champion who would have the power to investigate allegations of academic freedom or free speech violations and then lead on sanctions where appropriate”, he said.

“Those would be two things which could be done” by the new government, he told Times Higher Education.

Mr Mansfield, a former senior civil servant in the Department for Education, said a recent report by the Policy Institute at King’s College London had found that “at least a third of Conservative or Leave-supporting students don’t feel comfortable sharing their views” at university.

The Policy Institute research also found that “only a minority” of UK students have heard about incidents where freedom of expression has been restricted in their own university.

Universities are already subject to requirements to protect freedom of expression under existing legislation.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and a former Tory special adviser, said: “Because the Tories did even better in the election than anybody expected, to then use that [campus free speech] as a way of stoking a new culture war, I’m not sure who will benefit from that.

“It’s not clear to me that either the politicians or the universities benefit from pretending there’s a bigger free speech problem in our universities than there really is.”

And “hurried legislation tends to be legislation that doesn’t stand the test of time”, he warned.

On the manifesto’s reference to “low-quality courses”, Mr Mansfield said this should be understood “in conjunction with where the Conservatives have won seats.

“I think that steers them very much towards a genuine wholesale rebalancing between HE and FE in terms of funding, numbers, esteem and so forth. I think that will have to be part of the solution [in] looking at low-quality courses.”

There were “a range of mechanisms” for establishing which courses “aren’t delivering”, such as the teaching excellence framework, dropout rates and data on progression to employment, he said. Mr Mansfield added that he would “favour the reintroduction of number caps for at least some institutions or courses”.

Download THE post-election podcast: John Morgan and Simon Baker discuss what the election results mean for HE


Print headline: ‘Culture war’ fear on free speech

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