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Freedom to Think, Freedom to Speak! Why UK Universities must Change Course

Publication date: 21 December 2022PDF: Freedom to Think Freedom to Speak

Academics Lead the Charge against Repressive Culture of UK University Authorities. Internal Reforms Are Needed to Supplement New Free Speech Law, says Politeia’s next Publication

As the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill reaches its final stages in Parliament. Politeia’s new publication Freedom to Speak, Freedom to Think, considers the wider problem. The authors, Professors Arif Ahmed, Nigel Biggar and John Marenbon, say that while the new measure will help academics whose freedoms are threatened, change must also come from within the universities themselves.

Arif Ahmed, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, explains that free speech is threatened in three main ways.

  • Direct intimidation and cancellation of speakers and academics. This happened in the case Kathleen Stock, forced out of her job at Sussex in this way.
  • The restriction of freedom when universities adopt a corporate position on contentious issues. For instance, as Ahmed reports: St Andrew’s insists on students’ passing a ‘diversity’ module to matriculate. Questions include: ‘Acknowledging your personal guilt is a useful starting point in overcoming unconscious bias. Do you agree or disagree?’ The only permitted answer is ‘agree’.’
  • The micro-management of speech, often through harassment and discrimination policies, such as Cambridge’s infamous (and happily hastily withdrawn) 2021 ‘Mutual Respect’ policy.

Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor Emeritus of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford, explains that while it may not be possible to keep politics out of university teaching in many subjects, illiberal politics must be kept out. University teachers must therefore to be open about their approach.

 John Marenbon, Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, explains that instead of believing in the pursuit of truth, many academics are intent on practical, political and social aims. Instead of mastery of their subject knowledge, they aim for the unholy trinity of equality, diversity and inclusiveness, the ‘EDI’ gospel of today.

  • Appointments: Once candidates reach a certain threshold, they are not judged on the basis of academic excellence, but treated as equally good academically (though they are not). Selection is then made on grounds of diversity, to the detriment of white men. There is a bias in favour of the candidate whose work is in line with an ideologically motivated agenda.
  • Though potentially a valuable way to widen the curriculum, the reverse has happened. The drive to ‘decolonise’ in practice embodies anti-academic, revolutionary politics and is imposed by universities’ central bureaucracies.
  • No Dissent. Most dangerous of all, universities are abandoning their historic raison d’être as places where dissent is welcome. Without dissent we will lose the tradition of seeking truth.

The authors agree that the new Law will help. Professor Biggar, says:

‘Law has a pedagogical function, and this law will assert on behalf of the whole of society the high value of free speech and academic freedom in universities. Moreover, it will impose on universities a statutory duty to protect and promote academic freedom …’

Nonetheless, universities must change from within.   Ahmed proposes three practical steps:

  • Politically or ideologically oriented training or induction’ must be scrapped, with immediate and permanent effect.
  • Universities must adopt institutional neutrality on political questions
  • Students who wish to go to university must consent at the start ‘to the risk of exposure to ideas that are legally expressed in ways that they find shocking, disturbing or offensive.’

In her introduction, Dr Sheila Lawlor (Baroness Lawor), Politeia’s Founder and Research Director, notes the hostility by some parliamentarians and others defending the status quo to the government’s modest proposal and often in denial about the extent of the problem. ‘The hostility of the big bureaucracies against the small academic suggests that what is now needed is not just the timid first shot of this Bill, but a volley.’ 

The themes will be discussed at an event on Wednesday 21st December. If you would like to attend, please email programme@politeia.co.uk with your name, position, organisation and daytime contact phone number, and we shall reserve you a place. If you would like to bring a guest, please provide their name and details with email address and daytime contact phone number. Journalists are most welcome to attend.

Notes to Editors
1. Freedom to Think, Freedom to Speak! Why UK Universities must Change Course by Arif Ahmed,  Nigel Biggar and John Marenbon will be published by Politeia.

2. Professor Arif Ahmed MBE, Professor of Philosophy, University of Cambridge, Nicholas Sallnow-Smith Lecturer in Philosophy, Fellow of Gonville and Caius College

Professor Nigel Biggar CBE, Emeritus Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford

Professor John Marenbon FBA, Fellow of Trinity College, University of Cambridge

3. Established in 1995, Politeia is an independent, non-partisan think-tank providing a forum to discuss economic, constitutional and social policy with a particular focus on the role of the state in people’s lives.