Academic freedom is under attack from left and right

The UCU and the Tory government are as censorious as each other.

Jim Butcher

Topics Free Speech Politics UK

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The debate over free speech in universities is riddled with hypocrisy. Just look at the latest row between the UK Conservative government and the University and College Union (UCU), the trade union representing academics and other university staff. Each side claims to be defending academic freedom, but both take an entirely partial, partisan view of what academics should be allowed to say.

Last month, Michelle Donelan, secretary of state for science, innovation and technology, sent a letter to UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) – the national funding agency for science and research in the UK. In her letter, Donelan calls for UKRI’s equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) committee to be shut down, on the grounds that some of its members had made anti-Israel posts on social media.

These posts, made by academics employed by UKRI on X / Twitter, are undoubtedly in poor taste. One professor said the government’s crackdown on support for Hamas – a proscribed terrorist group – was ‘disturbing’. Another falsely claimed that Israel is an ‘apartheid’ state that is committing ‘genocide’ in Gaza.

Last week, UKRI complied with Donelan’s demands and suspended its EDI committee. But the UCU, which represents the individuals targeted in Donelan’s letter, has urged UKRI to push back against this attempt to police the social-media posts of employees.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady argues that Donelan’s intervention is an attack on academic freedom, and part of a wider ‘right-wing culture crusade’ on both EDI initiatives and the higher-education sector. She is particularly concerned about an extensive dossier compiled by the government, which appears to have investigated the social-media activity of UKRI staff, tracking their support for various political topics such as ‘decolonisation’ and ‘trans rights’.

Grady and the UCU are right to push back against this kind of sinister state meddling in academia. And Donelan’s demands for closer social-media monitoring of UKRI staff should certainly be opposed on academic-freedom grounds. UKRI employees should have the right to post their views on the Israel-Hamas conflict, or on any other political cause.

Ironically, Donelan prefaced her letter to UKRI by stating that ‘academic freedom and free speech are totally sacrosanct’, before immediately launching into an attempt to control what these UKRI staff members are allowed to say on social media. What’s more, only last year Donelan said that she believes university should be ‘a place where we live by the words… “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”’. Policing the social-media posts of academics is a funny way to go about defending that idea.

But the UCU has no right to claim to be a defender of academic freedom, either. The UCU rightly demands that its members be allowed to speak out against Israel. But this is a classic case of ‘free speech for me, but not for thee’. For it has adopted a virulently anti-Israel position, through its support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which results in the union routinely blacklisting speakers who are either from Israel or who have academic links with Israeli universities.

It is also worth remembering that this is the same UCU that has spent years leading a campaign against the academic freedom of staff and students who don’t buy into its view of ‘trans inclusion’. Standing up for trans rights, according to the UCU, involves opposing single-sex spaces, pushing ‘gender-neutral language’ as the norm and opposing all debate on questions around sex and gender.

In the most extreme example, the UCU’s branch at Edinburgh University campaigned last year to prevent the gender-critical documentary, Adult Human Female, from being screened on campus. It also attempted to No Platform speakers who are critical of trans ideology. It even sent letters to its members presenting gender-critical staff as a threat to the wellbeing of students. Needless to say, these actions are not only antithetical to academic freedom, but also to the purpose of a trade union, which ought to defend the free-speech rights of its members, not try to have them silenced.

It is particularly rich of Grady to criticise Donelan’s department for ‘investigating’ people and ideas it disapproves of. Last year, The Times found that the UCU’s LGBT standing committee plotted to collect information on gender-critical employees in human-resources roles who might pose a barrier to the union’s trans-rights agenda. The UCU denied involvement in this.

The UCU is not really concerned about academic freedom at all. It just wants to defend the primacy of woke ideology in higher education. Thanks to the rise of EDI departments and initiatives, staff and students who question trans ideology, critical race theory or anti-Israel bigotry are often putting themselves directly at odds with their employers and educators. The UCU has fed this intolerant culture.

Michelle Donelan is clearly no champion of academic freedom, but nor is the UCU. Both sides choose to defend free speech only when it suits them. The lesson here is to beware the fly-by-night defenders of academic freedom. Free speech is a fundamental value on which academia depends. A hypocritical defence of free speech is as good as no defence at all.

Jim Butcher is a lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Free Speech Politics UK


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