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Academics And Officials Have Questioned The Evidence Behind Gavin Williamson’s “Excessive” University Free Speech Bill

The education secretary has been accused of misrepresenting some studies when discussing the Bill (Alamy)

6 min read

Several academics and university officials have questioned the evidence underpinning Gavin Williamson’s new Bill aimed at ensuring free speech at UK universities.

It comes after the government introduced the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill to the Commons earlier this week, which would see universities fined by the Office for Students (OfS) if they fail to uphold freedom of speech on campus.

While some have welcomed the new legislation, others have accused the education secretary of “polarising” the debate by selectively citing existing research in the Bill’s favour.

“I think [the Bill] is excessive and over the top, but it’s inevitably more nuanced than that,” Jonathan Grant, a professor of public policy at King’s College London, told PoliticsHome. 

His 2019 report on the topic was among those cited in the White Paper and supporting documents for the Bill, alongside research from Policy Exchange and the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

But Grant argues that his work, and the work of other academics, has been misrepresented by Williamson and the wider government in relation to this new legislation.

“There's a conflation of issues in the debate, the White Paper that was published in February, and again in the Bill. And that's the conflation between so-called cancel culture and issues around the chilling effect.”

Earlier this year, Grant was forced to write to The Telegraph asking for a correction after the education secretary said he was “shocked” by the contents of the King's study, claiming that it found “a quarter of students believed violence was an acceptable response to some forms of speech.”

However, the report found that this figure was comparable with the general public, where 20% held the same view.

“As I joke to my student daughter that White Paper would have failed a master's dissertation on public policy, whilst the language in [the Bill] probably wouldn't have been a failure but it wouldn't have been a great mark. 

“Because our study does not say that. The issues of where freedom of speech is curtailed are very rare, less than 1%, but we do find concerns around the chilling effects.”

The representation of other studies cited by the government have also been called into question. 

Writing for The Guardian in February, Alison Scott-Baumann, professor of society and belief at Soas University of London, said the White Paper for the Bill was “more about appealing to voters and capitalising on the moral panic about universities than actually helping them to protect free speech”.

She pointed out that the Joint Committee on Human Rights report mentioned by the government actually “concluded that there is no major crisis of free speech on campus”

And, she highlighted research by the OfS which found that, out of 62,094 requests by students for external speaker events in English universities in 2017-18, only 53 were rejected by the student union or the university authorities.

Our study does not say that. The issues of where freedom of speech is curtailed are very rare.

- Jonathan Grant, professor of public policy at King’s College London

The necessity of the legislation has also been questioned across the higher education sector. Jo Grady, the general secretary of the Union and College Union (UCU), said she felt the Bill was “using freedom of speech as a Trojan horse for increasing its power and control over staff and students”.

"There are serious threats to freedom of speech and academic freedom on campus, but they come from the government and university managers, not staff and students," she said. 

Grady continued: “The truth is that widespread precarious employment strips academics of the ability to speak and research freely, and curtails chances for career development,” she said. 

“Free speech and academic freedom are threatened more widely on campus by government interference in the form of the Prevent duty, and attempts to impose the IHRA definition and examples of antisemitism on universities.”

Patrick O’Donnell, president of the York University Student Union (YUSU) said his and many other universities “have a strong record of encouraging debate, with a wide spread of political and campaigning societies on campus”. 

“No student has ever contacted me to express specific concern about a free speech issue on campus,” he told PoliticsHome. 

“Frankly, students across the country are more concerned about the woeful lack of government financial support and it’s disappointing to see these issues absent from the Queen’s Speech.

“The government should work with students’ unions to broaden and deepen engagement with controversial views — not cause students to risk assess the life out of campus.”

Legislation by itself is not going to be enough, and if we’re to change the culture of anything a top down approach is never going to be a complete solution.

- Dr Arif Ahmed, a reader at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge

But Dr Arif Ahmed, a reader at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, said the legislation was “extremely welcome” as it “shows that the government is taking this seriously”.

He agreed, however, that the issue of cancelled events at university had been conflated in much of the dialogue around the issue.

“No platforming is extremely rare, it almost never happens. And it is a very small part of this problem, it's a vanishingly small part of this problem,” he said. 

“So, the risk of any kind of action from no platforming I think would be negligible, if indeed it's correct that is rare already.”

“Legislation by itself is not going to be enough, and if we’re to change the culture of anything a top down approach is never going to be a complete solution.”

Ahmed added that he hoped “imposing a positive duty on institutions” to ensure students and staff know they can speak out will “make a real change to higher education”. 

Commenting on the introduction of the Bill, the education secretary said: “It is a basic human right to be able to express ourselves freely and take part in rigorous debate. 

"Our legal system allows us to articulate views which others may disagree with as long as they don’t meet the threshold of hate speech or inciting violence. This must be defended, nowhere more so than within our world-renowned universities.

“Holding universities to account on the importance of freedom of speech in higher education is a milestone moment in fulfilling our manifesto commitment, protecting the rights of students and academics, and countering the chilling effect of censorship on campus once and for all.”

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