Airbrushing Advance HE

Recent attacks on Advance HE and the National Union of Students add to suspicions that the government seeks to exert more control through its regulator, the Office for Students.  Under the ‘doublespeak’ of freedom of speech, academic freedom is more likely to be hemmed in by a planned appointment of a ‘Director of Free Speech and Academic Freedom’. The DfE is clear it pays the piper and wants to call the tune. So much for autonomy.

As this article was being completed, the Higher and Further Education Minister, Michelle Donelan, was spirited away and elevated to the heady heights of Education Secretary.  Today she also resigned after the shortest term on record as a minister and leaving no minister at the Department for Education (DfE) to turn out the lights. No doubt her replacement(s) will be expected to toe the line regardless of who replaces Johnson, who also resigned today. Her last visible act as minister at the DfE was to pen a letter to universities deliberately designed to undermine their links with Advance HE.  Their misdemeanour was to develop a ‘Race Equality Charter’ (REC) for their member universities to consider. Donelan disagrees with the initiative and in doing so opens the door to the spread of racism under the banner of ‘free speech’ at our universities. Undermining the role of Advance HE is compounded by the decision of Donelan to cut ties with the National Union of Students in May over differing views on antisemitism.  It seems control of universities and student views will be filtered through the Office for Students in future.

Things are moving fast. Since posting, James Cleverly has been handed the keys of the DfE. Now it appears that Andrea Jenkyns is holding the fort and covering Skills, Further and Higher Education from a more junior standpoint as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State.

An alarming letter.

A letter from the Higher and Further Education Minister, Michelle Donelan, emerged last week in the media.  It caused a small stir in some quarters since it appeared to challenge the autonomy of universities in England. Dated 27th of June, it emerged from the DfE addressed to “Dear colleague” and was reported as being sent to each university leader. WONKHE kindly reproduced the letter on their www site where Alison Johns, CEO of Advance HE argued that ‘Supporting evidence-based action on racial inequality is not wokery’. However, there does not appear to be a copy lodged for the public record at the DfE www site or evidence that the Office for Students (OfS) were sent a copy.

What Donelan wrote.

Implicit in the letter was a threat to funding unless universities reconsidered their position on tackling racism and inequality on their campuses. This was reported in The Telegraph as ‘Universities told to reconsider membership of ‘woke’ scheme’.

It appears that Donelan’s letter was prompted by incidents that took place back in 2021. One in particular whereby “Two hundred academics wrote to The Times in October 2021, reporting that they had received abuse, including some reporting death threats, simply for expressing their views.”  The  letter ‘We will not bow to trans activist bullies on campus’ (The  Sunday Times October 17 2021) was  an open letter reported across various media outlets in support of a  university of Sussex professor who had received abuse because of her stance on transgender issues. There is of course no room for threats and bullying under any circumstances. However, this must be tackled without shutting down legitimate opposing views. Not considered by Donelan was an ‘Open Letter Concerning Transphobia in Philosophy’ from earlier in the year. In it, six hundred academics criticised the awarding an OBE to the same professor and set out a rational counter argument in support of transgender people.

The logic behind Donelan using the above arguments as a platform for criticising initiatives, that sensibly set out to tackle racism and other discriminatory problems at our universities, remains obscure.  In relation to UUK’s REC initiative, Donelan says that  “Given the importance of creating an HE environment in which free speech and academic freedom can flourish, I would like to ask you to reflect carefully as to whether your continued membership of such schemes is conducive to establishing such an environment”. This assumes UUK and their member universities had not considered that.   

The funding threat.

Worse was to come with Donelan offering an implied threat through this advice, “Bearing in mind the substantial sums invested by the taxpayer into Higher Education, I would ask you to consider whether membership of these schemes; the initiatives that flow from them; and the creation of new, highly paid, management roles in these areas truly represent good value for money for taxpayers or students”

This threat clearly crossed the line of university autonomy and assaulted the very idea of academic freedom.

Robust reactions.

Advance HE took a robust line in defence of their  REC policy with, ‘Advance HE statement about tackling inequalities’, stating that their “work is entirely evidence-based” in “promoting Equality, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) across the higher education sector”. 

The response from Universities UK President, Steve West, was fast and furious.  It was reported in Times Higher as  ‘Equality scheme letter ‘crossed line’, universities tell Donelan’.  He questioned “the intent of your recent letter” and questioned is any  “evidence is available to support the assertion that external assurance schemes are negatively impacting free speech”.  He promised more to come with a “strong sector commitment endorsed by our board which reaffirms our collective commitment to promoting academic freedom and free speech”.  The combative approach of Donelan appears to have indeed ‘crossed a line’.

What is Advance HE doing that is so contentious?

The answer is simply, nothing that should lead to such a challenge. Advance HE is a charitable organisation seeking to improve Higher Education across a wide range of activities. It started as the Higher Education Academy in 2003 and drove a highly successful policy of improved professionalism in teaching and learning at our universities. It became Advance HE in 2018 and is funded through its  320 members across the UK who collectively own the organisation.  Perhaps this alone means that the government would like to usurp its influence and pass control to the OfS. The tension is building.

Covering up racism at our universities.

The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (CRED) issued its widely criticised  final report last April to a torrent of incredulity. This was covered in detail by TEFS with ‘Covering a tangled web of racial bias, poverty, and inequality with whitewash’.

Indeed, the Prime Minister’s senior adviser on ethnic minorities, Samuel Kasumu, resigned at once when  it appeared the report was dismissing the idea  of ‘institutional racism’ and the need of unconscious bias training.  It also omitted to consider universities at all. This was despite the UUK report from November 2020, ‘Tackling racial harassment in higher education’, and Advance HE making it clear “Racial inequalities are a significant issue within higher education”.  Add to this a research briefing from the House of Commons Library in June 2021 ‘Equality of access and outcomes in higher education in England’ that highlighted the very real issue of racial inequality alongside gender, disability, and socioeconomic status. The barriers to equality were clearly identified and Advance HE must be lauded for tackling the issues, not undermined.

Tension and the Higher Education Freedom of speech bill.

In her letter, Donelan cites a “tension with creating an environment that promotes and protects free speech is university membership and participation in external assurance and benchmarking diversity schemes.” In this case REC.  Yet it is hard to see what tension UUK’s scheme is bringing about. Unless of course Donelan is advocating freedom to promote racist views regardless of the outcome.  But it would be hopelessly naïve to think university leaders were not aware of their obligations under the ‘The Race Relations Act 1968’ or their existing academic freedom obligations. Certainly, the promotion of racial hatred has been a crime since 1968.

It is also odd that a government, surrounded by lack of leadership, economic crisis, climate change and war, turns itself inside out on the issue of freedom of speech in our universities.

Timing is all.

Donelan’s letter of course coincided conveniently with passage of a new bill aimed at ‘controlling’ free speech in our universities.  

Sponsored by the DfE, the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill passed its second reading in the House of Lords last week and seems well on the way to Royal Assent later this year.

But if there is any ‘tension’ it is between the government’s proposals and existing rights. Appointing a Director of Free Speech and Academic Freedom at the Office for Students, and giving them sweeping powers, will clash with existing provisions enshrined in university Statutes. It is ominous that existing provisions are not mentioned in the Bill. Instead, it looks like a bid to exert control on academic freedom through overriding existing protections. This is done by promoting free speech that risks undermining academic freedom.

Academic freedom and freedom of speech.

Although they go hand in hand, they are different things.  Free speech is a right for the individual that allows people to say what they want, regardless of the evidence. Academic freedom operates in a ‘collegiate’ environment whereby evidence and rigour are expected.  Yet they overlap and there are consequences if one restricts the other.

Robert Mark Simpson of University College London recently offered a sound analysis of the relationship between the two in ‘The Relation between Academic Freedom and Free Speech’ (Ethics Volume 130, Number 3 April 2020). His conclusion is that “free speech in universities some-times undermines academic practices”. This is already obvious to anyone working in a university. He challenges the views that “campus free speech actually furthers the university’s academic aims” and that “universities have a secondary democratic function, which cannot be fulfilled without free speech on campus”.

For a government to wade in with free speech legislation now begins to look crude in the light of the tensions it inherently creates for academic freedom. The Bill fails to acknowledge existing rights and their role in protecting academic freedom.

To this end, the fact that ‘Academic Freedom’ is carved into the Statutes of all our universities seems to have slipped the attention of the government. Also that university statutes have adopted  ‘Academic Freedom’ as defined by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in Paris on 11 November 1997.  This sets out in detail “the responsibility of states for the provision of education for all in fulfilment of Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)”.  It includes the rights and responsibilities of all involved, institutions, individuals therein, and importantly in this context, the autonomy of universities.

The last word: From free speech to speechless.

During the debate on the Bill in the Lords last week, it seems there was confusion about free speech and academic freedom with Conservative hereditary Peer,  Frederick Curzon, (aka 7th Earl Howe) stating that “The Bill will protect lawful freedom of speech and academic freedom on campus.”  Although it might appear that way, the outcome will be a tidal wave that breaches the academic freedom dam.

But the last word must go to Labour life peer, Janet Royall (aka Baroness Royall of Blaisdon) during the debate. She is Principal of Sommerville College, Oxford.

“Today, I learned that Minister Donelan has written to all vice-chancellors suggesting that the Race Equality Charter is “potentially … in tension with creating an environment that promotes and protects free speech”. I am speechless. Can the Minister really defend such a suggestion? I am often asked whether wokeism is rife in our universities and specifically at Oxford. I suggest that it is not”.

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