New norms may require British varsities to guarantee free speech

Vidya Ram London | Updated on January 08, 2018

JO JOHNSON, British Universities Minister

PRIYAMVADA GOPAL, Reader on Anglophone and Post-Colonial Literature atCambridge University.

Will this boost far-right voices? Academic community divided views on proposed rules

British universities will be required to “guarantee” free speech or face fines and potential deregistration in a controversial move by the Theresa May government.

The move has divided the nation’s academic community, with some fearful that the new rules would simply enable the airing of far-right voices that have gained momentum in the past couple of years.

The measure is one among a series outlined in a consultation launched on Thursday, relating to a newly established regulator for higher education in England, the Office for Students (OfS).

The OfS will ensure that institutions recognise the “importance of freedom of speech and the role it plays in ensuring open debate…the aim is to ensure students are exposed to a wide range of issues and ideas in a safe environment without fear of censorship, rebuke or reprisal,” the Department of Education said on Thursday.

“I know there is good practice out there…but there are still examples of censorship where groups have sought to stifle those who do not agree with them,” said Universities Minister Jo Johnson in a statement.

Elaborating on his plans for The Times newspaper, he said that the responsibility would include ensuring that student bodies are able to “no platform” controversial speakers.

Recent controversies

The move follows a number of recent controversies in Britain where feminist writer Germaine Greer and gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell faced protests from students over their views on transgender rights, and against plans for them to speak at universities.

Greer’s speech at Cardiff University went ahead in 2015, though there were strong calls, including from the students union, for the speech to not take place.

“Universities should prioritise the voices of the most vulnerable on their campuses, not invite speakers who seek to further marginalise them,” read the petition at the time.

The issue of free speech around universities has gained increasing prominence across the world, including most recently in the US, where white supremacist Richard Spencer was due to speak at the University of Florida on Thursday.

While the British government’s plans won some academic support including from Brian Cox, the well known physicist and author, who tweeted that it is “the duty of universities to produce graduates who understand and enjoy robust debate and intellectual challenge”, it has also faced criticism.

“There isn’t sector-wide suppression of speech, whether it’s right wing or other…there have been a couple of well publicised cases but my concern is they’re trying to make an issue of something that is not an issue,” said Priyamvada Gopal, a Reader on Anglophone and Post-Colonial Literature at Cambridge University and outspoken critic of government policies.

She contrasted the new regulation with the “draconian” Prevent regulations brought in to tackle extremism at universities that had in effect clamped down on far wider issues, including discussions relating to Palestine and Israel, with criticism of Israel being wrongly conflated with anti-Semitism, she said.

“Universities are meant to be places for discussion and free speech but the way the government has framed it, it is reversing the actuality.

“Extreme right views already have a lot of space, and it’s people like transgender women or those who are speaking out against white supremicism who are not sufficiently platformed.”

Indian parallels

Gopal drew parallels with the situation in Indian universities, arguing that issues such as Palestine and Israel have become as difficult to hold as those on Kashmir in India. “I think the parallel is striking.”

Published on October 19, 2017

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