UK universities may no longer be able to ban controversial speakers from giving talks on campus – those that continue to do so could face a fine. The freedom to debate and discuss difficult topics should remain a central feature of university life, according to the universities minister, Sam Gyimah.
To tackle the issue, Gyimah has called for a single clear set of guidelines for both students and institutions to replace the “dizzying variety” of rules about who can be invited to speak on university campuses and what they can say.
This is the first government intervention on free speech on campus for 30 years. And the new plans could see universities named and shamed or even fined if they don’t uphold the rules of free speech.
Tentacles of bureaucracy
Writing in The Times, Gyimah echoed recent public concerns about the stifling of free speech on university campuses. Blaming what he referred to as a “murky” landscape with an array “of disjointed guidelines”. He noted how those “unseen and pernicious tentacles of bureaucracy can so often reach out and hold events back”.
Gyimah hopes that the construction of a set of clear guidelines will enhance the landscape of free speech within universities. This will also allow speakers to present their views without the threat of censorship or “shouting down”.
But Gyimah’s concerns over an increasingly bureaucratic university culture also reveal wider problems with the business model of higher education. Increased competition in the graduate job market, combined with rising costs to attend university, has caused a shift in the role of students. Once in the unique position to engage in intellectual curiosity, many young people now approach a university education as a consumer product.
This places pressure on administrators and academics to deliver a particular university “experience” that fulfils the demands of the consumers themselves. That this phenomenon has led to issues of no-platforming and censorship, then, is no surprise.
This latest move by the universities minister signals official recognition of the issue of free speech on campus. The introduction of uniform regulations across universities in the UK may offer a welcome level of clarity when navigating such issues.
But, as was revealed in a recent report by the parliamentary joint human rights committee, the potential for over-regulation to contribute to the “chilling” of free debate should not be ignored. If the government and universities really are committed to securing free speech on campus, difficult questions on the sources of these clashes must not be avoided.
Ministers must also consider the broader problems suffered by academic freedom itself. This means avoiding overgeneralised language regarding clashes between the political right-wing and a so-called “snowflake” culture and instead actually listening to those from all corners of the debate.
Though the temptation to frame the debate in terms of the threat of “political correctness” remains ever present, this approach is both unhelpful to the furthering of free speech and unnecessarily politically partisan.
Value of higher education
As the first government intervention of its kind since 1986 – when universities became subject to a duty to support freedom of speech – there is hope that the proposed guidance will go some way towards resolving current tensions.
It is believed that recommendations made by the newly formed Office of Students will be considered as possible modes of regulation. But these rules will need to be clearly defined and made transparent, or else risk falling into an even more constrictive state of regulation. This will be no easy feat.
What is needed is a broader approach to the problems of freedom of speech on campus. Providing clear guidance for invited speakers is only one part of the equation. Governments must also strive to ensure that those from all sections of society are given equal opportunity to access higher education. And that those voices are included in the social fabric of university life.
Safeguarding a commitment to academic freedom also requires making sure that academics themselves are adequately valued for both their teaching responsibilities and research contributions. This is important because taken as a symptom of a wider issue in universities today, the free speech debate cannot be separated from these broader concerns about the value of higher education itself.