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Artillery Row

The future is bright for academic freedom

New threats to speech inquiry could inspire an unlikely consensus around openness

“The most open attack on academic freedom … in some time” — that is how Jo Grady, General Secretary of the University and College Union, described interventions by Michelle Donelan MP and the Government in the higher education sector.

Grady cites Donelan’s open letter criticising two members of a UK Research and Innovation committee, the ongoing maintenance of the duty on Universities to help prevent people supporting terrorism, and the pressure on Universities to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism. This is no random selection of complaints: all relate very closely to the fractious debate over the situation in Israel and Palestine, along with the accusation that legitimate discussion — and academic freedom — in relation to it are being improperly stifled.

Such concerns about the health of academic freedom in the UK are certainly not new. The UCU itself commissioned a major report highlighting the parlous state of freedom, and in 2019 it submitted a complaint to UNESCO. Since then, the situation has seemingly only deteriorated, particularly for gender critical academics such as Kathleen Stock, Jo Phoenix and Rosa Freedman. Ironically, the UCU has faced criticism that it has failed its members in this regard.

Beyond that, we see an increasingly chilly free speech atmosphere: between 2019 and 2023, the per centage of students agreeing with the statement “Students avoid inviting controversial speakers to my university because of the difficulties in getting those events agreed” has risen from 37 per cent to 48 per cent.

Surely then, with academic freedom under siege in this way, its future is bleak? Not so. There are a multitude of reasons to think that the future for academic freedom and free speech on campus is bright. The main driver of this is the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023.

The Act is far from perfect as a piece of legislation; in many ways, it shows that the Government did not properly understand how best to protect academic freedom. Nonetheless, it will still have a major and material impact on the sector. The Act contains new and enhanced duties on Universities and colleges, requiring them to protect free speech on campus and academic freedom. This protection must permeate their governing documents, their management processes, and the way in which they recruit, discipline and dismiss academic staff. They will also lay out their values with respect to those freedoms and actively promote their importance.

Even if these new obligations don’t — on their own — succeed in creating an atmosphere on campus that is conducive to academic freedom (as has arguably been the case under similar existing laws), then there is a new member of the sector’s regulator whose role is to enforce compliance. They will also oversee a free-to-use complaints scheme, which will allow students and academics to bring their free speech issues directly to the attention of the Office for Students.

This new director is Professor Arif Ahmed, a free speech advocate who scored notable free speech successes at Cambridge before taking up the role. Professor Ahmed is plainly committed in a deep way to the philosophical ideals of free speech and academic freedom, recognizing their importance to the academy and society more generally. Engaging such a serious thinker as the new “Free Speech Tsar” is a reason for those who value academic freedom to have great optimism for the future.

Academics will be increasingly conscious of their rights and emboldened to assert them

In addition to these developments, new organisations are being formed to support academics who face free speech and academic freedom issues. For instance, Professor Alice Sullivan — noted for her work regarding threats to the academic freedom of gender critical feminists — has co-founded the London Universities’ Council for Academic Freedom. Its principles commit to free inquiry, intellectual diversity and civil discourse. There is also the Committee for Academic Freedom, which stands by the principles of non-reprisal for lawful opinions and not compelling staff and students to express an opinion against their belief or conscience. These organisations join the well-established Academics for Academic Freedom group, with branches being formed in numerous Universities across the UK at a fast pace; and the well-known Free Speech Union, which supports many academics and higher education staff in their free speech disputes.

Speaking of such cases, these are another reason for great cheer with respect to academic freedom. There are several high-profile cases involving academic freedom issues which are currently making their way through our tribunals, including Phoenix v Open University, Favaro v City University and Gadow v Open University. As noted on the crowdfunding page, the Gadow case argues that valuing academic freedom is, in itself, a protected philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010. It seeks to entrench the significant human rights protection for academic free expression into UK law.

Despite recent events and the warning flares lit by the UCU (and the grave warnings of some of the country’s most serious-minded and devoted defenders of free speech and academic freedom), there is much to be optimistic about. Supported by new organisations and fortified by new law, academics will be increasingly conscious of their rights and emboldened to assert them. In turn, one hopes, this will lead to an academic culture more conducive to risk taking and challenging orthodoxy, with more academics putting their heads above the ideological parapet. The reports of academic freedom’s death are greatly exaggerated.

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