• Fri. Mar 1st, 2024

Gavin Williamson announces measures designed to protect academic freedom

ByFlora Robertson

Feb 22, 2021

The Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has announced stringent new measures this week which aim to prevent free speech and academic freedom being infringed upon in higher education institutions.

Upon implementation of the regulations, the Office for Students will be able to fine universities for breaching these rules.

Williamson expressed concern that universities are no longer an environment in which controversial ideas can be tested and eventually become accepted knowledge, drawing on examples of Darwin’s theory of evolution and John Spencer Bassett’s opposition of racism. 

He also referenced the current view of the critical reception of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ and ‘Life of Brian’ as archaic. 

Whilst controversial to their contemporary audience, neither of these works were written to actively condemn entire groups of people.

A “Free Speech Champion” will be established in the Office for Students and will enforce the laws regarding free speech and academic freedom. 

For the first time, student unions will be required to uphold laws of free speech for their members and external speakers.

Alluding to the recent push to decolonise the curriculum, Williamson claims that “Academics have been pressured to adjust their reading lists for ideological reasons”. 

A colonial curriculum is not only widely accepted to be inaccurate but is considered by many to be unrepresentative, inaccessible and off-putting.

Williamson’s biggest concern appears to be protecting an environment in which new ideas can be explored and potentially propel society forwards.

Examples he gives as unacceptable cases of censorship appear to be instances in which people who expressed views previously deemed acceptable, but eventually recognised to be discriminatory, were penalised.

He named Ngole, Carl and Todd as victims of ‘cancel culture’.

Felix Ngole was expelled by the University of Sheffield for expressing homophobic views publicly on social media. 

The University deemed that his articulation of these views breached the professional requirements of him as a social work student. 

Ngole appealed to the high court and won on the basis that the University had been too harsh in their punishment but was told that he would have to express his views more moderately and in a way which would not interfere with his job as a social worker. 

Researcher Noah Carl was dismissed from his position at Cambridge University after it was discovered that he had collaborated with members of the extremist far right to write work supporting racist stereotypes.

He had previously attended a conference discussing eugenics and “race intelligence”. 

He was dismissed on the basis that he did not fulfil the criteria expected of a person in his role.

Oxford history professor Selina Todd was “no-platformed” from a women’s festival at Oxford University because of her transphobic views. 

In Williamson’s letter there is no mention of hate crime laws in the UK which include verbal abuse against an individual based on their identity as part of a protected group. 

It is also illegal to incite hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation as well as religious and racial hatred. 

A spokesperson for the Russell group responded to the new measures, stating that they are committed to free speech, but the government should work with universities and student unions to ensure it is maintained rather than adding “unnecessary” regulations. 

They also highlighted a 2019-20 survey by Wonkhe which revealed that only 0.06 per cent of events with an external speaker were cancelled. 

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, Vice President for Higher Education for the National Union of Students also responded to the announcement. 

She expressed their commitment to upholding freedom of speech but also said “There is no evidence of a freedom of expression crisis on campus”. 

She highlighted the poor timing of Williamson’s letter, suggesting that the government instead focus on providing financial and academic support to students rather than “attacking” institutions.

Image: Richard Townshend via Wikipedia