Higher Education and Research Bill - Report (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:47 pm on 13th March 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Deech Baroness Deech Crossbench 6:47 pm, 13th March 2017

My Lords, this amendment goes to the heart of what the Bill is all about. Let us set aside for a moment the questions of fees, numbers, quangos and validations. The Bill is ostensibly about teaching excellence and academic freedom. We take it as implicit—the league tables confirm it—that our universities are among the very best in the world. Some of them are consistently found in the top 10, alongside American universities. We are united in wanting to preserve our excellence, as the vote of a few moments ago showed. We want to preserve it for its own sake and because it is a valuable, international attraction, embedding our intellectual values in cohort after cohort of future world leaders who come here to study. But you cannot have academic freedom, as now included in the Bill, or teaching excellence without freedom of speech. That, as I have repeatedly warned in this Chamber over the last couple of years, is in danger. Sometimes it is farcical gagging of speech and other times it is very dangerous.

The Bill will rank universities’ teaching skills as gold, silver, bronze and ineligible. There exists another ranking—that of freedom of speech—in our universities, which is, in my opinion, to be taken even more seriously as an indicator of excellence. The free speech university rankings 2017 examine all our universities according to the following criteria: bullying and harassment policies; equal opportunities policies; students unions’ attitude to no-platform policies; safe space; student codes of conduct; bans on controversial speakers and newspapers; and even expulsion of students on the grounds of their controversial views or statements. The sampled universities are then ranked: “red” means a university that is hostile to free speech and free expression; “amber” means a university that chills free speech and free expression by issuing guidance with regards to appropriate speech; and “green” is for the other universities which place no restrictions on free speech and expression, other than where it is unlawful.

Sixty-one universities, or 63%, actively censor speech. The censoring is either by the university administrations or by the students themselves. The examples of censoriousness are well known, whether it is the silencing of a Muslim woman calling for reform of religious attitudes towards women, the playful adoption of foreign dress or cuisine, mentions of transgender, the likelihood of blasphemy, or even complaints about censorship itself. We all remember the suspension of Sir Tim Hunt and the LSE lecturer who was silenced when his views about welfare were found to be likely to be unacceptable. Violence met Israeli peace activists speaking at UCL and KCL.

At the other end of the scale, hate speech is being heard unchallenged. A recent review of people convicted of terrorism found that a significant number were in education at the time of the offence. Student Rights logged 27 speaker events in London in four recent months where speakers referred to homosexuality in the most derogatory and punitive terms, and defended convicted terrorists. That is unlawful speech and universities are not always stopping it. My amendment, if accepted, would incidentally clarify, limit and strengthen the Prevent policy, which is likely to be reviewed because it would single out unlawful speech as a target of prohibition rather than the more woolly “extremism”. In sum, there is no point pursuing teaching excellence and academic freedom, in ranking universities gold, silver and bronze, if at the same time their real freedom and intellectual excellence comes out red or amber. These rankings are known internationally.

The Government maintain that my amendment is unnecessary because the required laws are already in place. I submit that not only are they ineffectual but there is a gap in the Minister’s summing-up letter which relates to enforcement. Students union premises are included in the premises on which a university must afford freedom of speech, but in practice some university authorities claim that union-organised activities taking place on university premises are not covered and the authorities back off, claiming the union is autonomous. Nor do they put a stop to safe-space controls. Or the universities tell students who have been discriminated against by their union that complaints are handled exclusively by the students union, which is wrong in law.

The Universities UK 2016 task force on violence against women, harassment and hate crime set out guidance for a disciplinary code for universities to adopt. The task force found that the evidence also suggested,

“that despite some positive activity, university responses are not as comprehensive, systematic and joined up as they could be. A commitment to addressing these issues is required within every university, from senior leadership down”.

Yet the report’s guidance does not seem to have been widely accepted. Some colleges—for example, SOAS—reject the new definition of anti-Semitism helpfully disseminated by the Government. I say “helpfully” because it distinguishes between lawful, political criticism of a state, which is fine, and race hatred which is not.

I turn now to the other points made in the letter sent to all Peers by the Government. It is stated in that letter that legal proceedings should be brought against universities if the freedom of speech duty is not complied with. That is too slow and the action needs to be against the disruptors in the first place rather than the university. There have been complaints to the Charity Commission about some unions but that, too, is slow and difficult. I respectfully suggest that the basis on which the Government now state that they are confident that students unions are sufficiently controlled by existing law is because I provided them with advice from a QC. Most universities do not know the law and dispute the conclusions. The Office for Students could require freedom-of-speech principles to be included in the public interest governance conditions but there is no requirement at the moment. It ought to be included in the Bill.

As we heard a few moments ago, many of our future leaders, both British and international, are being educated here in our university system. Since the referendum last year, there has been a spotlight on hate incidents, a rising number of unacceptable actions and speech. We are all disgusted by it. Some of us know that this has gone on for years and we are relieved that, finally, the occurrence of hate and intolerance in higher education, the media and society generally is getting the attention and disapprobation necessary. We will be letting down our future leaders if we allow them to receive their education on campuses where censorship is accepted and where hate speech and actions are overlooked. We will be storing up even more trouble for the future.

Accepting my amendment would not only show genuine commitment to excellence and academic freedom but clarify and control the Prevent guidance. It would provide for enforcement and support the UUK task force on hate and harassment. It would help students who have suffered from silencing and worse. To reject the amendment will send yet another message round the world—I am not exaggerating—that the Government and the university system remain passive in the face of a great threat to the future of our young. Our students must not graduate in the belief that there is no real freedom of speech, or that hate is mainstreamed. They must not leave university believing that it is routine to settle debates by silence or violence. For their good, I seek to have this amendment accepted. I beg to move.