Jo Johnson, the Minister for Universities, has announced that the government is prepared to use fines and other sanctions against universities and student unions that refuse to uphold freedom of expression.
The Office for Students (OfS), a new government regulator, will replace the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) in April 2018. The OfS could fine, suspend or deregister universities that fall short of the new measures. It will also be tasked with ensuring that university staff, student unions and student societies are held to account over their legal responsibilities towards free speech. These proposals will form part of a series of consultations surrounding the body’s remit in the lead up to its eventual operation.
Student Rights broadly welcomes these new recommendations. We believe that there has been widespread misuse of ‘no-platforming’ and ‘safe spaces’. These tactics have been selectively applied and have disproportionately targeted progressive figures such as Germaine Greer, Maryam Nawazieand Peter Tatchell. Moreover, protests against Ami Ayalon, former director of Israel’s Shin Bet, at KCL led to violence and intimidation directed at Jewish students.
The NUS’s longstanding ‘no-platforming’ policy is outdated and too much at risk of undermining universities’ legal obligations. It was initially established by the NUS to prevent students giving a platform to speakers affiliated to six extremist organisations. However, because the policy allows individual unions and student groups to make their own no-platform lists, it is a tactic that has gone too far.
We anticipate that these new measures will bring much needed clarity in this area. However, as we have continually stated in our past reports, this policy can only work if student unions and student societies are compelled to make greater use of balanced panels to ensure that extreme or controversial speakers are not left unscrutinised.
This is a major problem on university campuses. A recent Student Rights report entitled ‘Extreme Speakers and Events in the 2016-17 Academic Year’ found that out of 112 events featuring extreme speakers last year, only one took place within a balanced setting. Freedom of speech should not be interpreted as an excuse for licence.
Theories of ‘intersectionality’ – which argue that progressive politics should be aligned with oppressed groups – have been used by students on the radical fringe to forge political alliances with Islamists on issues such as foreign policy, human rights and domestic extremism.
The manifestations of this ideology in practice are morally and politically regressive. The same groups that promote restrictions on certain speakers – such as the NUS and ‘Students Not Suspects’ – have repeatedly abused the principle of free speech to justify one-sided events which have given legitimacy to extreme groups such as CAGE.
Student activists have deliberately spread misinformation about Prevent and propelled extremist narratives which accuse the government of racism and Islamophobia. Some of them, such as former NUS Vice-President of Welfare Shelly Asquith, have even instructed students to break the law.
There must be a middle-ground. It should be perfectly possible to honour responsibilities towards freedom of expression alongside the statutory duty to challenge extremism. We hope that the UK government and the Department for Education will consider these points as part of their series of consultations.