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New university ‘free speech champion’ is not in the interests of the student body.

  • Opinion

By Zaynab Mufti, BA International Relations and History

We Brits are known for our pride in our values and freedoms. No matter the stake and no matter whose neck is stepped on, all is fair as long as our freedoms are upheld – right?

It seems our government thinks so too. In an attempt to strengthen free speech in England, the government has announced a new ‘free speech and academic champion’ in universities under the Office for Students (OfS). The role expands the existing regulations for universities on free speech and now gives the OfS greater influence over students’ unions. 

The ‘Champions’ will be able to fine students’ unions that they deem to be denying freedom of speech as they understand it. Examples of this could include de-platforming bigoted speakers and preventing public discussions of intolerant beliefs. Effectively, the Conservatives have created the legal means to suppress any campus protests – free speech, right?

Education Secretary Gavin Willamson claims that it will counter ‘unacceptable silencing and censoring’ on university campuses. It is clear that the majority of the general public will welcome this move as a 2019 YouGov poll revealed that 52% of British adults agree that this is a significant problem. 

This perceived threat comes as part of a larger culture war engineered by the right – the so-called ‘war on woke.’ This has manifested itself in the government’s response to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Home Secretary Priti Patel labelled the 2020 BLM protests as ‘dreadful’ and Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick suggested drafting a new law to stop ‘woke worthies’ bringing down statues. 

It is clear that the government does not favour positions that draw attention to Britain’s questionable imperial past. Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden even went so far as to criticise the increasing acknowledgement of Britain’s colonial history in order to ‘defend our culture and history’ from the ‘activists constantly trying to do Britain down.’ 

So, this move to silence critics and ‘protect’ freedom of speech is not surprising. It begs the question, however, is freedom really being threatened on campuses? 

In 2018, the Joint Committee on Human Rights investigated free speech on university campuses and concluded that there is no threat nor is there ‘wholesale censorship of debate.’ Despite the strong media narrative that de-platforming is widespread, the OfS themselves revealed that only 53 out of 62,094 requests for external speakers were declined by university bodies during 2017-18. 

It is apparent then that the free speech crisis declared in mainstream media is a fabricated right-wing offensive. In fact, to suggest that the Conservatives are champions of this freedom is laughable. It is the same right-wing that silences students with the Prevent counter-terrorism strategy and dominates the British press. 

If freedom of speech is the primary concern, the government would be supporting their critics like they do their loyalists. Instead, the government is preoccupied with trying to protect their idealistic version of free speech.

How, then, will students be affected, and what is at stake?

Autonomy of the student body is at risk. Regulation of intra-university events and debates should be conducted from within, rather than imposed from above. In handing power to the OfS, not only is a fundamental freedom to protest being taken away, but a contradiction in terms is being declared. 

The OfS has been given an unprecedented amount of authority to control what can and can not be said in our campuses. To supervise free speech is to remove the freedom inherent within it. What was once in our hands as students is now in the hands of the government. So yes – ‘free speech’ is being protected, but only if it fits the government’s agenda. 

The threat to our independence and freedom should not be understated, especially considering Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s history of penning savage articles targeting Muslims, Black people and other marginalised communities in his previous career as a journalist. Undoubtedly, this provides a further license to his loyalists to continue slandering people of colour, migrants, the poor and minorities.

Ultimately, this debate is only a distraction from the dire education failures of this government throughout the pandemic. Instead of providing solutions for students still paying thousands for accommodation they can not live in, this government has decided to champion and prioritise the rights of bigots on empty campuses all under a guise of caring about our education and our universities. 

If the government truly cared, they would be prioritising hardship funds, the return of maintenance grants and the fair treatment of staff instead of an attack on our independence and freedom. 

Photo caption: Gavin Williamson in 2020. The Education Secretary Gavin announced a new ‘free speech champion’ for higher education in hope of strengthening free speech on campuses. (Credit: Pippa Fowles / No. 10 Downing Street)

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