Yes, the UK Really Is Proposing a ‘Free Speech Champion’ for Universities

We’re in the midst of a pandemic, schools are closed and campuses are empty due to COVID lockdowns, but the UK government wants to focus on free speech in higher education.
​Masked students sit during a socially-distanced class at Oxford University last November. Photo: Laurel Chor/Getty Images​)
Masked students sit during a socially-distanced class at Oxford University last November. Photo: Laurel Chor/Getty Images)

The UK government has been ridiculed for proposing a new role which it calls a “free speech champion” to investigate issues around no-platforming at university campuses, during a pandemic, at a time when most campuses are empty and on-campus events are non-existent.

The proposals would introduce the ability for academics or students who have been expelled to seek compensation through the courts, as well as the “free speech champion” who would investigate issues around free speech in higher education and recommend a course of action.

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Education secretary Gavin Williamson – who said the UK was a much better country than the US, France or Belgium, presided over a huge screw-up with an algorithm used to generate exam grades for school leavers, said Russia “should go away, it should shut up” after the novichok attack in Salisbury while he was defence secretary, and who was sacked by former prime minister Theresa May for leaking sensitive information relating to Huawei – said he was “deeply worried about the chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring”.

“Free speech underpins our democratic society and our universities have a long and proud history of being places where students and academics can express themselves freely, challenge views and cultivate an open mind,” he said.

But students and student bodies have criticised the proposals, launched during a pandemic that has claimed more than 100,000 lives in the UK, when schools are closed and universities mostly empty.

“The whole thing is just completely laughable,” Mattie Shannon, a third-year student and campaigner at the University of Manchester told VICE World News. “In the middle of a pandemic, that somehow this imaginary culture war is the biggest problem facing universities...the whole thing is just completely laughable.”

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Shannon says there are much more pressing issues on campus. “We're seeing racial profiling more and more on campus. We're seeing a dismissal of any sort of academic discipline seeking to challenge this, like critical race theory and decolonisation studies. Not to mention the problems of monetisation [at university]. We've got international students using food banks, and indeed, home students using food banks.”

Over the past year, universities across the UK have been largely closed due to lockdown restrictions. Events with visiting speakers have not taken place due to public health concerns, and many students have only been able to access online learning. This has left students paying thousands of pounds in rent payments for accommodation they cannot use or do not need, on campuses they should not travel to according to coronavirus guidance. Rent strike campaigns are currently taking place at over 40 universities. 

“It’s just another part of the government’s war on higher education,” Ben McGowan, a first-year student also at the University of Manchester, and part of the Manchester Rent Strike campaign said. “They’ve marketised the entire higher education system to the point that unis are now run entirely for profit and students treated as consumers rather than learners. Now they want to attack whatever’s left of it.”

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, NUS vice president for higher education, said: “Students’ unions are committed to freedom of expression and are the very home of rigorous debate and new ideas. There is no evidence of a freedom of expression crisis on campus, and students’ unions are constantly taking positive steps to help facilitate the thousands of events that take place each year.”

“At a time when students are facing untold hardship, the government would be much better advised to focus on providing the practical support that students desperately need, through maintenance grants, no detriment policies and funding to eradicate digital poverty, rather than attacking the very institutions that have stepped up to fill the gaps in support being offered.”

Figures such as writer Germaine Greer or LGBTQ campaigner Peter Tatchell have faced calls of no-platforming at universities in recent years, in response to alleged transphobic or racist views. In most cases, however, figures are able to participate in the original event, leaving many to question whether no-platforming is as big an issue as the government has suggested.

“At a time when students are facing untold hardship, the government would be much better advised to focus on providing the practical support that students desperately need, through maintenance grants, no detriment policies and funding to eradicate digital poverty, rather than attacking the very institutions that have stepped up to fill the gaps in support being offered.”

Figures such as writer Germaine Greer or LGBTQ campaigner Peter Tatchell have faced calls of no-platforming at universities in recent years, in response to alleged transphobic or racist views. In most cases, however, figures are able to participate in the original event, leaving many to question whether no-platforming is as big an issue as the government has suggested.