Examination of Witnesses

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:29 am on 7th September 2021.

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Professor Kathleen Stock and Dr Arif Ahmed gave evidence.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 9:37 am, 7th September 2021

We have our first panel of witnesses, so a very warm welcome to Professor Kathleen Stock and Dr Arif Ahmed. We will go straight into the questions. As always, time is of the essence and it would be much appreciated if you keep your remarks directly related to the questions and keep them as brief as possible.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Thank you for joining us this morning, Professor Stock and Dr Ahmed. I have a couple of questions I wish to raise with you, Professor Stock. You suggested in a recent Q Guardian article that university management groups and vice-chancellors have been unable to

“manage the modern problems around suppression of academic freedom.”

Yet, every university I have spoken to already has a code of practice on the freedom of speech and academic freedom. Many, including King’s College London, have based their code of practice on the renowned Chicago principles. If universities are already under a duty to protect academic freedom and freedom of speech under the Education (No. 2) Act 1986, how can it be said that university management groups are failing in their duty to uphold academic freedoms?

Professor Stock:

I think that the traditional problem of academic freedom has expanded. Several relevant factors are now in play that were not before, including the internet, which is the most obvious one, social media, academics being encouraged to engage online, student fees, encouraging us to think of students as customers, competition with student recruitment and encouraging universities to present their most PR-friendly face towards students, which might involve playing up certain political views that students have to attract them and being rather embarrassed about certain political views that they think will not attract those students.

It might also involve—it certainly does involve—bringing activist groups in to do equality, diversity and inclusion. It appears to me there is no oversight on how these new factors, which are significant, are impacting on individual academic freedoms within institutions. It is not really institutional autonomy; it is about individual freedom or unorthodox, non-conformist thinkers being able to say, write or think what they want. I think there is plenty of evidence that that is being chilled.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q Is that something you have witnessed yourself?

Professor Stock:

Yes, I have experienced it myself. I have submitted some written evidence, which I am sure you will see. Various things have happened to me. There is evidence of students, colleagues and various other bodies, but the important point is the message it sends to others. What I get is private correspondence from lots of academics saying that they are genuinely frightened, whether rightly or wrongly, but they are frightened to say what they think about matters of controversy.

Even if universities think that in reality these people would not be censured, the fact that they believe they would be censured is enough to chill academic freedom, and that is a problem for what university is for, which is producing knowledge and understanding.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q You will have read the Bill. How do you envisage that the provisions in the Bill are going to protect the likes of yourself and others from these supposed threats to academic freedom?

Professor Stock:

The Bill is quite vague, so it is going to need a lot of guidance, concrete examples and accompanying notes. The main point of it, which is to impose a duty on universities to act and promote a culture of academic freedom, should be, if it is done right, a countervailing weight against the irrationality that can be found among some academics and some students, and universities’ apparent inability to deal with it.

As for just having academic freedom in people’s minds, I think most students are not even aware of what that means. Quite a lot faculties do not really know what it means. Being aware of the law as it stands would be good, as would having discussions about the value of academic freedom, and thinking all the time of how this new equality, diversity and inclusion directive relates to academic freedom. There are a lot of moving parts in a university. It is complicated and legislation is always changing. To have a focus on that constantly would be great.

Professor Stock:

Yes.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q Are you suggesting that the University of Sussex does not promote academic freedom of speech?

Professor Stock:

I am suggesting it could do better. It says it does, but that is not my experience. For instance, it hardly ever advertises a thing I do, and I do fairly high-profile things. Normally, a university would be very keen to advertise the high-profile things that its academics do, so why is that? It could be concluded that it finds me embarrassing because it has to sell Sussex to students, particularly left-wing students, particularly north London students. That is a difficult demographic to manage when dealing with the issues that I deal with.

Sussex is not out of line with the sector. I talk to lots of colleagues at other universities and they say the same thing. There is the problem of basically selling yourself to students, which is obviously going to interact with matters of pressing social importance that do not quite square with what students think.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q To pick up on your point that universities could improve, or the University of Sussex

Professor Stock:

I would rather not talk just about Sussex. It is a general problem.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

No, but we all tend to speak from personal experience because it is more direct and authentic. Do you not find, when institutions could improve, it is actually about some changes within, and that perhaps you do not need legislation to force it through? It is thought very widely that this is a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Professor Stock:

The problem is that unfortunately we do need legislation, because universities have not got on top of this. With the people I am talking to, and the stuff that I refer to in my written evidence, we are not talking just about deplatforming. I know there is a focus on public events and public speaking. There is a range of areas where speech is being suppressed or controlled, where junior academics are being put on vexatious complaints for expressing their perfectly legitimate academic views, and where people are being very cautious about what they teach because they want to avoid controversy.

If universities had been able to get on top of all of that, they would have done, I assume, but they have not. In some cases, they just deny the problem. This legislation says that there should be a positive duty to promote academic culture. That could be a very positive, forward-looking initiative; it does not have to be heavy-handed, although obviously it has the capacity to be punitive. But there is also the dimension of encouraging universities to examine what the value is of academic freedom, which is not a discussion that I see happening.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

There is legislation already, in the Education Act. What you are saying is that that is not working. If I follow your argument, universities are not following that because what they want to do is to ensure that they have not got individuals like you or perhaps other academics who are going to put off students fromQ being attracted to those universities, because of their views. To follow it to a logical conclusion, is not the ultimate thing that is going to happen this? If the only motivation behind it is that somehow they feel that if they allow you and others to express your different views—which I fully support, personally—that will put off students from going there, are they not going to just not employ people like you?

Professor Stock:

I am not a lawyer, but I assume that there should be some discussion of how recruitment happens and—

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Q That is not covered by the Bill. If the logic of your argument is that the reasons why universities are not—

Professor Stock:

I think that is already happening, for what it is worth, so I am not sure you are going to be able to change that in any way. I think that people are coming to interview on the basis of their views.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Q Is not the logical conclusion to what you are saying, your argument, this? You are saying that institutions are not using the existing law, which is there to protect academic freedoms; you have said, in the evidence that you have just given, that it is because they are afraid of not attracting students because of people like you or others having views that might be hostile to them. Is that not linked to the fact that what universities will do is just not employ people like you?

Professor Stock:

I understand the question; I just do not really see how this—you have not pointed to a particular aspect of the Bill that would encourage that situation. I think that situation may already be in place. Arguably, if we change the culture of universities so that people—administrators as well as academics and students—come to understand why it is a good thing to have viewpoint diversity and a good thing to have civil disagreement, that might be less likely to happen. This should not just be a bureaucratic, box-ticking exercise. Done right, it should change the culture of the university sector, and that will have ramifications for far more than the university sector, I think; it will have good, positive implications for civil discourse generally. However, I do not see how this is going to somehow increase the chances of people being excluded on the basis of their views at the recruitment stage. We are still at HR—

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Q But your main argument was the fact that somehow this legislation was needed because universities were not going to employ, not wanting to get, people like you, because it was turning off students from going to those universities. There is a system in legislation, in the Education Act, to protect those academic freedoms. All I am saying is that if you do this, if you are saying that your main argument is that they are doing it—

Professor Stock:

It is one of my arguments.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Q Well, your main argument is that their argument is that they are doing this because they are afraid of putting off potential recruits to their universities. The ultimate conclusion to that is that they will just not employ people like you, which I do not agree with, but—

Professor Stock:

I have answered that to the best of my ability. I have understood the question each time you have asked it and I have answered to the best of my ability.

Dr Ahmed:

My understanding—maybe I have got it wrong—is that new provision A1(9) does mention the case where someone is applying to be an employee of one of these institutions, and they will not be adversely affected by virtue of their free speech expression in those circumstances. It is my understanding that the Bill does say something about that.

The second thing that I would say is that independent of the issue about universities employing or not employing people in order to attract students, the Bill would have the effect, I believe, of discouraging students from thinking that they could put pressure on universities to fire or discipline people by virtue of their views, so it would prevent mobs from forming, mobs that have formed against people I know at Cambridge and other people in the country, because they would know that it would not have an effect.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Q In a previous life, I was a trade union official, and can I just say to you that employers will find very clear ways of not employing people, to get round any type of legislation? It will not be on the basis of your views; it will be for some other reason, so this does not give a great deal of protection for those individuals anyway.

Dr Ahmed:

I do not think that the employer—that is, the management of the university—gets up in the morning and thinks, “How am I going to stop free speech? How am I going to fire these people?” They are responding to pressure from what I think is quite a small group of activists within universities. If this legislation has the effect of creating some kind of countervailing pressure, then you are right. Of course it is not going to solve the problem; I have been a trade union official myself and I know something about what these issues are. Of course it is not going to solve the problem, but it will help, because I think it will create pressure in the opposite direction.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Minister of State (Education)

Q Dr Ahmed, you have previously discussed a soft censorship approach. Can you explain what that is and the impact that you think it will have or that it is having on universities?

Dr Ahmed:

You can distinguish between hard censorship and soft censorship. Hard censorship, in my understanding —the distinction is evident in the written evidence that I submitted—means universities actively suppressing certain kinds of speech by enacting certain kinds of regulation. I think we have seen different examples of that, which I am happy to discuss.

Soft censorship is where there is not any regulation, but people know—people sense it themselves, because they know that if they say this, or they say that, or if they present these views, they will be regarded adversely. If they are a student, they might be ostracised

. It might make difficulties for their academic career. That is the result. Because, as it happens, we have an academy, which, at least in some parts, is predominantly in one part of the political spectrum, the result is that certain kinds of research do not get done and certain kinds of views do not get defended by people who, in their hearts, perhaps, believe in them.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Minister of State (Education)

Q I have a question to both of you, following up on the earlier questions. The existing legislation ensures that there is a duty to protect free speech and this legislation goes further in terms of promoting free speech. Do you think that is vital to changing the culture on campus?

Dr Ahmed:

Yes, I do. Obviously the Bill itself does not go into great detail as to what it means by the word “promote”, and I think that is sensible, because it may mean different things in different institutional contexts, but it could mean, for instance, things like events at induction for students, so that people are made aware in ways that they are not now made aware, certainly at my university, just how essential freedom of speech and freedom of thought is to the very functioning of the university, and indeed to being able to function as an adult in a healthy democracy.

It could mean things like making it central to decision-making processes at all levels of the university, so that when we make decisions, we do not just think about the equality and diversity implications of this planned decision, which we do as a matter of course, but that it becomes just as reflexive that we think about the free speech implications of a measure. That is something that certainly Cambridge and I expect most other universities and other academic bodies are not doing.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Minister of State (Education)

Q Professor Stock, do you want to come in?

Professor Stock:

I echo that. I think it was implicit in my earlier answer, that one of the attractive things about this Bill is the promotion aspect—that it is not just a defensive crouch and it is not just punitive; there is an opportunity. I believe in academic freedom, so I think I could explain to people why it is an important thing and we could discuss that—argue about it, even. It would be encouraging that sort of aspect of university life, which would have knock-on effects all over the place—on Google in particular.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Minister of State (Education)

Q I have one final question to Dr Ahmed. At Cambridge, you successfully put forward the amendment, which I am sure everybody around the table is aware of, altering the requirement of “respecting” to “tolerating”. Why do you think that amendment was needed?

Dr Ahmed:

That was one of three amendments that went through on a large majority. The reason for the concern was that the use of the word “respect” and the requirement for respect in that context meant respect for all kinds of ideas and identities as well. That would preclude, for instance, mockery. It would preclude views that give offence to people who hold religious views. My own particular interest is religion. For instance, I teach the work of David Hume. David Hume was about as offensive in his mocking of religion as anyone was in the 18th century. Would I be able to teach that, because his views were certainly disrespectful towards religion?

Another point, of course, is that whether something counts as respectful depends on how willing the person you are disrespecting is to take offence. So, more sensitive people will end up with a kind of veto. We all have our own examples of people who are especially sensitive taking offence. Those people will end up having power over what we can say and what we cannot. The effect would be absolutely to strangle any form of rigorous academic discussion over the most important things in life. That was why I thought the word “tolerate”, which has no connotations of admiration and is completely compatible with mockery—it simply rules out stopping people from practising or having those beliefs—was more useful, and, evidently, many of the dons at Cambridge agreed.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

Good morning to you both and thank you for being here. On the issue of academic freedom, I want to turn to what the Bill does and does not say. I am looking at the evidence submitted by your friend, I think, Professor Ross Anderson. His concern is around changing the wording in the Bill fromQ

“freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom” to

“freedom within the law and within their field of expertise”.

I have concerns that a Bill that is allegedly intended to promote academic freedom could in fact limit academic freedom if you are limited to defining what is your field of expertise. I welcome your comments on that.

The other point in the Bill which concerns me around the alleged promotion of academic freedom versus the reality of the Bill is that it talks about academics and not academic staff or those working within the university. They seem to be exempt from coverage under the Bill, as are visiting academics. What are your thoughts on what the Bill does to promote academic freedom? Where can it be strengthened or changed to actually promote the academic freedom that I believe we all support? Maybe Kathleen first.

Professor Stock:

I suspect that we differ on this answer, but I think the difference between academic freedom and freedom of expression, assuming there is one, can only be in principle grounded in expertise. That is what makes the difference between the person who has freedom of expression generally and the person who has special protections as an academic. To put it briefly, that is because academics are perceived to have a certain authority, so their authority should be rigorously tested. They should not be able to get away with just saying, “It is just like this, and you have to accept my word for it.” At the same time, there will be people who want to shut them up or buy them off, so we have to keep them protected.

However, I do see that in practice in a university it might be quite difficult to distinguish between these. For instance, there are a lot of professional services that have PhDs who are looking to get into academia. There are students studying and also working for the university in various capacities, so the blurring is quite present. In practice, it might be that that clause does cause problems and may need to be rethought. In principle, though, that is the rationale for this whole conversation on expertise. There is a further discussion about how to differentiate different fields of expertise.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

Q Yes. We had evidence on this issue around a field of expertise and the overlapping between the different academic areas and who would define whether you have a field of expertise in one area versus another. Sorry, I am talking instead of you.

Dr Ahmed:

I agree with Professor Anderson’s point with regard to the clause about a field of expertise for a few reasons. One is that, as Kathleen says, there are difficulties around defining a field of expertise. To use an example reasonably close to my own heart, if you take Professor Richard Dawkins, one could argue that theology is not his area of expertise. Many theologians would argue that it is not even his area of competence. I would dispute that myself, but it could be argued. Nevertheless, we would certainly want a Bill that protects his freedom to muse about religion as he likes. That is one issue.

The second issue, which is one Professor Anderson showed very well, is that much innovation in science—and I use the word “science” very broadly—comes from cross-fertilisation between fields. Biologists might have insights into economics, let us say, even though it is not their field of expertise or perhaps even their field of competence. That is often where the really interesting and innovative insights come from. A Bill that restricts academic freedom to one’s area of expertise might well have a chilling effect on those kinds of interactions. For both those reasons I agree with Professor Anderson’s suggestion that the restrictions of expertise should be dropped.

With regard to your important point about whom the Bill covers, the way I think of it is that universities are institutions that have public money. They serve a public purpose and it is essential that that involves free speech, freedom of inquiry and freedom to exchange ideas. Therefore, the simplest way to achieve that would be to have a Bill that covers all staff at universities and all students, rather than making what are possibly invidious and certainly difficult-to-draw distinctions between all academic members of staff.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

Q Do you therefore include visiting academics as well? Further to that, in the evidence from James Murray, he talks about the Bill as it is currently written almost giving primacy to student freedom of speech over academic freedom. What are your thoughts on that? For example, from the evidence that he has given, the Bill says that institutions must have regard to freedom of speech, but, many times in the Bill, it does not add “and academic freedom”. Do you share those concerns that the Bill, as it is written, could give primacy to students’ freedom of speech at the expense of academic freedom?

Dr Ahmed:

Well, I certainly do. You say there is a concern that it takes a heavy emphasis on students’ freedom of speech and things like that, but it is one of the things that has been under threat.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

Q But for institutions and those working in institutions, surely we should be promoting academic freedom?

Professor Stock:

I took it as implicit. I did think it was slightly confusing because those two things are usually theoretically distinguished—“What is the difference between freedom of speech and academic freedom?”—so it is a bit confusing that “freedom of speech” is the phrase. However, given the context of “Higher Education (Freedom of Speech)”, I thought “Well, this just must be about academic freedom” but, in terms of drafting, that could be clarified.

I would just add, on who it applies to, I think the more temporary and precarious the person’s position, the heavier the duty we have to protect their speech. It is well understood in classical discussions about academic freedom that being in fear of losing your job, of not getting a promotion, or of not pleasing your supervisor, would give you extra reasons to be quiet, to self-censor and so on, so I think it is important that it applies to temporary and part-time positions.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

Q And we have that sort of counterbalance that, if academic freedom is to be genuinely protected, I think it does need to be more explicit in the Bill. Would you like to comment on that?

Dr Ahmed:

I do agree with that, but, of course, there are plenty of examples, as we know, of students who have also suffered adverse consequences. As I understand it, the term “adverse consequences” is defined in the Bill for academics, but is not defined for students. However, under any natural understanding of the term, students have suffered adverse consequences by virtue of disciplinary investigations, which have often gone on for months—even if no finding was issued against them—for things that were not illegal and were, at worst, slightly shocking. I think, in some ways, it is worse for people who are 18 or 19 than for someone like me to have to go under a discrim investigation; it could ruin their entire career.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I will bring in another one. You can come back later, if there is time. We are pressed for time, because this panel must finish by 27 minutes past 10.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

Dr Ahmed, in your evidence you say that there are several threats to free speech in higher education. You talk about two: self-censorship and regulation. Could you unpack those a little more, and tell us how widespread those problems are and what evidence you have of themQ ?

Dr Ahmed:

With regards to self-censorship, I mean something similar to what I said to the Minister when I mentioned self-censorship: people simply not saying things that they think on matters that are important, or not pursuing lines of research that they think might be fruitful, because they fear the consequences, whether that is full disciplinary action or some other form of ostracism, such as being overlooked for a promotion or various other things. That is what I mean by self-censorship.

The principle bulk evidence that I have is from the University and College Union survey of 2017, which was included in the report for the UN in 2019. It says that 35.5% of UCU members who answered the survey said that they self-censored, compared with something like half that percentage for the rest of what was then the EU.

That is roughly what I mean by self-censorship. I have come across plenty of examples of that. When I was campaigning for the liberalised free speech policy at Cambridge, many people said to me that there are a whole range of issues—from issues to do with race, with transgender, and with Israel and Palestine—on which they were simply unwilling to say what they thought because they feared the consequences. Those are obviously matters of huge importance. That was the first thing—self-censorship.

The other thing that I mentioned was regulation; perhaps I should say micro-regulation, because what I mean is universities placing formal obstacles in the way of people saying things that are perfectly legal.

To give one example, my own university recently put forward a policy, which has now been withdrawn, on discrimination and harassment, which included a variety of things regarded as micro-aggressions. These are things we should avoid. None of them is illegal, as far as I can tell. In fact, on some of them, particularly the one in my case to do with religion, if I had actually heeded that policy it would have impeded my own teaching and professional activity.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

Q You say that the Bill, although plainly not enough in itself, could be a first step

“towards recreating a culture of robust and completely open debate without which a university education loses much of its point.”

How effective will the Bill be in achieving that, and what more do you think needs to be done?

Dr Ahmed:

With regards to how effective I think it will be, I would look at the Equality Act 2010 and the way in which that has created over the last 10 years a change in the culture of higher education institutions. It was not immediate; it was gradual and it occurred through the institutionalisation of certain values. More generally, the most important thing in human life, the most important determinant of human behaviour, is habit. If we get into the habit of speaking freely and of thinking about these things at all times, eventually it will feed into our values and into our ways of thinking about what a university should be, so I am reasonably optimistic. Obviously, it is an empirical question and there is a paucity of data, but in some way the 2010 Act gives me some hope.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

Professor Stock, on a point that you raised, you are right that we need to ensure that freedom of speech in the academic field is regularly debated. We need to remind ourselves of the critical importance of it as well. My concern is that sometimes in Parliament we see an issue and we rush to legislate, which is not always well thought out as a result of the lack of preparation and consultation. The famous Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 is an exampleQ .

You expressed concern about some elements of the Bill. The Bill itself lays a huge range of conditions on student unions and university and academic institutions, and then it brings in potentially draconian sanctions, but we do not know what the sanctions are yet. They all reside at the moment with the Secretary of State. Do you share my view that if the Bill is to proceed, we have to be careful about unforeseen consequences? If we place a duty on a body, there should be a mechanism to ensure that the duty is exercised effectively and under advice as well. There are no advisory structures set out.

For example, you cited in your evidence various incidents that have taken place. There is no mechanism by which you can advise on how things can go forward. In addition, with regard to the sanctions, my worry is that although others might have confidence in the Secretary of State, I have never had confidence in any Secretary of State without direct accountability to Parliament that is open and transparent. At the moment we do not even have a schedule of what sanctions could be levied against institutions and individuals as well as student union bodies. In addition, we have introduced another opportunity for claiming a tort instead of going for a breach of duty as well, which is broadly framed in the Bill but is not specific.

When you raised this question, it struck home with me. Do you believe that there should be elements in the Bill that give us more guarantees about its implementation so that it is effective, accountable and transparent? That means building in mechanisms for future advice. It means being more explicit about the nature of the sanctions and how they operate. To be frank, if I were an administrator at one of these bodies at the moment, I would be working in the dark about how the Bill will be implemented.

Professor Stock:

I can see that it is a risk. In a sense, every time you legislate, I assume you are a hostage to fortune to some degree because there is always—

Professor Stock:

I am not saying that is a good aspect of any legislation. I agree that up to a point a lot is left unspoken. A lot depends on the interpretation of the Bill by whoever the free speech champion is. They are going to have to drive the project. It is going to be really important to get the right person and they are going to have staff, obviously, but I cannot reassure you on these points—I did not draft it.

I have read various critical responses to the Bill that talk about the possibility of vexatious complaints and lack of transparency, but it seems to me that, while I am not downplaying those as potential issues, we also need to remember that there are lots of vexatious complaints against individuals going on at the university level and there is a lack of transparency there. We are talking about institutions. There is more than one set of vexatious complaints to worry about and, arguably, only one of those ruins people’s lives, so that is to the forefront of my mind, but I accept that there is indeterminacy here, because I think there has to be legislation.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

Q I completely understand that, but by addressing one type of vexatious complaint, you could be causing others. With regard to the point that you made about the director for freedom of speech and academic freedom, again there are no structures linked to that in—

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

John, I have to stop you there.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

But it is such an interesting dialogue.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

It is, but you are not the one giving the evidence. Dr Ahmed, do you want to say anything on this?

Dr Ahmed:

I have relatively little to add to what Kathleen said on that point. The only thing I would add is that I would like to see a situation in which there was a possibility of extremely draconian measures against universities that are not fulfilling their basic function, and in an ideal world they would never be used.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

I am going to use this microphone as instructed, Sir Christopher—my apologies for speaking from the wings. I refer members of the Committee and others to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.Q

Dr Ahmed, you wrote in your evidence, and you have repeated it today, about self-censorship and how that had changed. Would it be fair to say that the culture in universities has changed quite radically? You mentioned the Equality Act, and you might just as well have mentioned the growth of the internet and the intimidation that is delivered through that. How far does that soft censorship, which you implied a moment ago, affect people’s prospects at universities—the acquisition of fellowships, promotions, funding and so on? What evidence do you have that that has changed in universities, in your academic experience and more widely?

Dr Ahmed:

With regard to your point about the internet, I would echo some of the things that Kathleen said in her written evidence, to the effect that Twitter, for instance, allows the mobilisation of mobs, quite quickly, against individual academics. That has been one of the effects. As you said, in addition to the Equality Act, the internet has had an effect on that—by which I mean Twitter.

With regard to self-censorship, my own experience has been that it has changed drastically over the last 10 years. Now, for instance, one would regard it as a typical experience to be in meetings where things are being proposed where I certainly sometimes—rarely, in my own case—bite my tongue. I know that there are people who bite their tongues in the sense that they will not object to certain things that are pointless and stupid, simply because they are afraid of the consequences.

What are those consequences? It is different in different cases. In my own case, I have tenure, fortunately, and I am relatively secure, but for someone who is on a temporary contract, you do not even have to be fired or face disciplinary action. All that needs to happen is that you come to end of your temporary contract, which you would normally expect to be rolled over, which typically does happen in academia, and they will just decide for some reason—as one of your colleagues was saying, it can be quite easy to invent a pretext—“Well, actually, we won’t be needing you any more.”

People in short-term positions are, I think, especially vulnerable and are perhaps the ones who are most likely to self-censor. My own experience is that this is happening a lot more now than in the past. That is from my experience of meetings with decision makers at high and low levels within Cambridge University.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

Q The implication of what you are saying is that a lot of that will be invisible, because we do not know what people do not say. We do not know who would have been promoted had they said something else, believed something else or taken other stands. Actually, what we may be seeing is the tip of the iceberg. Is that fair? We cannot know how many people are constrained by the culture you have described and by the capacity of the mob to pursue them.

Dr Ahmed:

Correct. Of course, you are quite right that it is the tip of the iceberg. The evidence that we have—I am referring again to the UCU survey, which is the largest evidence base that we have—says that 35% of academics self-censor. When you think that that includes people who work in totally uncontroversial fields, such as Diophantine equations, that is a very significant proportion. There is some evidence, but, as you say, it is probably the tip of a huge iceberg.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Before you go, Sir John, may I ask you to expand on your interests?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I ask because, obviously, people do not have access to the register.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

I have to declare an interest. I am a trustee at the University of Bradford union. I have received donations from the University and College Union. I was the UCU co-ordinator at the University of Sussex and I received money from that university to provide educational opportunities for their students. I would like to think that I work in the sector.Q

Professor Stock, thank you for your evidence. I must say, actually, that your vice-chancellor did sing your praises to me the last time that I met him and said how excited he was for you to be coming here to show the diversity of views at his university. He was very positive, actually, and I have the email to prove it. That might reassure you. He is leaving anyway, so we will see.

You have raised some really important points about making sure that there is diversity in views at a university. Is there a problem, however, if this is put in legislation, that that becomes too strictly defined as requiring balance? We have debates about the BBC and climate change denial, and the need to have equal airtime for people who disagree and for people who agree. Is there sometimes a necessity for a university to develop a course that is balanced not just numerically but also in terms of where the academic weight is?

Professor Stock:

There is a useless way to balance and then there is a productive way to balance. The BBC is a completely different context, because often you have to present both points of view simultaneously, and they just start shouting at each other and nobody’s the wiser. However, on a course that extends through time, and possibly over years, it would be unacceptable not to balance. Balance just means going through lots of different points of view that disagree with each other and trying to work out what you think. It means telling the students that it is their job to work out what they think—that they are not necessarily supposed to agree with you just because you think something, but they are supposed to develop their own points of view.

What is happening at the moment, for me personally, is that—completely extraordinarily, relative to the norms of the sector—whenever I do manage to get an invitation to speak somewhere from some poor, hapless person who does not know my reputation in advance, complaints pile in, and they say, “We’ve got to find a trans person to be on stage with you for balance.” I have had the Francis Bacon keynote at the University of Hertfordshire completely changed in format—until covid meant that it did not happen anyway—just because this idea of balance was required. That is much more like the BBC kind of balance. I do not see why I should have had someone right there when no one else is required to have someone there.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

Q Will the Bill not promote that perverseness? Rather than allowing an academic to speak within their own frame, the university will feel obliged to make sure that there is someone to speaks against—in the case you mention, a trans activist—when actually that totally distorts the ability of an academic to explore ideas without having someone jump down their throat every moment.

Professor Stock:

You may know the Bill more intimately than I do—I have read it a few times—but I have not seen anything specific about viewpoint diversity. [Interruption.]

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

We can only have one person speaking at a time. Let the witness speak, please. [Interruption.] Lloyd, will you let the witness respond?

Professor Stock:

I think I understand. I do not see anything in the Bill. I think that that is a danger. That is a particularly bureaucratic, shallow understanding of viewpoint diversity and balance. The guidance under the free speech tsar should absolutely avoid demanding that every strong articulation of position is immediately countered, chronologically, by its opposite. That would be facile. However, there are other ways of explaining what balance is, of conceptualising balance, that leave that out.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

Q The devil is in the detail. You mentioned at the beginning of your evidence, in response to some of the questions, about part of the problem being that people are unsure, particularly those on short-term contracts, and that academics might not be promoted. Is the problem that you identify the very problem that UCU and many of us went on strike over only a few years ago—the gradual move towards temporary contracts in institutions, the move towards lack of tenure and requiring students to do teaching? It is not a problem of freedom of speech; it is a problem of giving people security in their workplace.

Professor Stock:

That is a false opposition. It is both. Just for the record, UCU had adopted an irrational view on exactly the issues that I am engaged with. I am no longer a member of the union because it would not support me in my academic freedom, so UCU is not blameless in this area.

Photo of David Simmonds David Simmonds Conservative, Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner

I draw the Committee’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am an honorary fellow at Birkbeck College at the University of London.Q

The European convention on human rights is the main underpinning of most human rights rules in the UK, including freedom of speech. The UK, like most of the member states, goes well beyond what that says is the minimum. Given the international nature of academic research and the experiences that you have outlined, I am interested in your view on the adequacy of the minimum protections that that provides for freedom of speech and whether you foresee potential conflicts with other pieces of legislation—for example, inequalities that might result?

Dr Ahmed:

With regard to tension with other legislation, I suspect there might well be tension with the Equality Act and difficult decisions to make about a breach of the duty to promote freedom of speech versus the duties imposed under the Equality Act, so I think there are issues that guidance should be able to sort out with regard to what counts. My understanding of the ECHR is that there is the strongest possible protection for academic speech, so almost nothing can count as harassment in a pedagogical context.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Shadow Minister (Equalities Office)

I am interested in two of the points that we have come back to a few times today. The first is around the distinction between academic freedom and freedom of speech. You referred to your view that in that context there is no such thing as harassment. I wonder, in relation to remarks made by the Secretary of State when the Bill was first announced, whether you think there is a limit to academic freedom versus freedom of speech and where that limit should be drawn. Holocaust denial was given as an example. To declare an interest, I am Jewish, so that is something that I am interested inQ .

Professor Stock:

To clarify, do you mean the tension between academic freedom, freedom of speech and the rules against harassment?

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Shadow Minister (Equalities Office)

Q And if you think there should be a limit in the Bill, or are you saying that in an absolutist context there should be absolute freedom of speech?

Professor Stock:

I am not saying that, and I do not think the Bill says that, as I understand it. I think this sits within wider sets of laws about speech. I am not a free speech absolutist. The vast majority of the instances that we are talking about are perfectly within the law but are still being censored and having adverse consequences. I acknowledge that there are some kinds of speech that are criminal and should not be allowed in universities. I think the law is quite well set up to deal with things like that. I understand there is already a legal precedent on holocaust denial. I understand your concern—I really do. There is a defensive tendency for universities to leap to the most extreme example. If we adopt entirely or orient our attitude towards those examples, and if we are extra cautious because of these possibilities, we really lose a lot in the middle ground. These things are always difficult. You could not possibly sort it out in 30 minutes.

Dr Ahmed:

I agree with almost everything that Kathleen says. There is a distinction between what the Bill says and what I think needs to happen with regard to free speech. With regard to the first point, the Bill as I understand it says free speech within the law, and therefore makes reference explicitly to existing legislation. The Bill therefore does not protect anything that is already illegal.

With regard to my own view, I am close to being a free speech absolutist. Like many people, I think that the law in this country is overly restrictive. Obviously there are some things, for instance to do with court proceedings, confidentiality of applications and so on, where it is proper that there are restrictions. But short of such things, we could be a lot more liberal than in fact we are. That, however, is a separate question from the content of the Bill.

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Conservative, North West Durham

Something a lot of people, particularly the Opposition, were asking on Second Reading was whether this is just a total sledgehammer to crack a nut. How big a problem is this self-censorship, really? We have seen the evidence today: that 35% of academics in the UK are self-censoring versus 19% in the EU. Is this something that is actually stopping you doing your work as academics?Q

Dr Ahmed:

Yes, I believe that it is. For instance, I genuinely think that there are things now that I would hesitate to say. Because I am in the position that I am, I am prepared to say them, but I know many people who are not. There are questions that many people would hesitate to explore, so it is now stopping academics from doing their jobs.

Professor Stock:

It is not stopping me doing my job, but is unreasonable to expect the average academic to have to go through the things that I have gone through and overcome the obstacles that I have had to. I have to do so much in order to be able to teach a class on feminist philosophy where I can say, “Here is what I think, and I can say this because I have all this research that backs it up,” and even then I get complaints, and colleagues will call me a bigot. It is not reasonable to put that as the standard for the average academic saying what they think.

My concern, in talking about my experience, is not, “Oh, feel sorry for me.” It is that people see this, and it sends a message. I just want to point out that, of course, self-censorship is by its nature quite hidden. Universities will say, “Well, nobody’s told us this.” There is a real elision in our culture between saying that something is right and saying that someone should have the right to say that it is right. People confuse those all the time. If somebody says, “I think Kathleen Stock should have the right to say what she thinks,” that can be interpreted as, “She’s right,” and then that person is called a bigot too. It is infectious.

Dr Ahmed:

I forgot to mention that, of course, the issue of self-censorship affects students as well as academics. Many students are simply not asking questions. If you have a class about religion, immigration or trans issues, there are students who might want to ask questions that they genuinely want the answers to, philosophical or otherwise, which they are afraid to ask in class because of what will happen if they ask them.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q We are running out of time; I think we have one minute. Can I just ask a final question to you, Dr Ahmed? In point 12 of your written evidence, you say that the Bill would require

“a credible mechanism for holding to account those that do not” promote free speech. Do you view the Office for Students, as it is currently organised, as a credible body that is capable of delivering a credible mechanism?

Dr Ahmed:

Broadly, yes, I do.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q Even though its chair is a Conservative peer, is party affiliated and has made a donation to the Conservative party since his appointment.

Dr Ahmed:

There are always concerns with the regulator —that it has to be impartial—and there are also concerns in this particular case. The question is the general impartiality of the regulator. I do not know anything about Lord Wharton. I would not be the right person to ask about that. If it is to do with the issue of free speech, what we need in a regulator is someone who has guts and principles.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q He would be responsible for the appointment of the director of free speech. Would you have absolute faith in that?

Dr Ahmed:

There is no evidence that I am aware of that there would be any problems with the appointments process.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Shadow Minister (Equalities Office)

Q If the Bill goes through, what would the measure of success be? You have talked about academic freedom, the chilling effect and self-censorship; these are things that exist in a very abstract way. You have referred to the UCU research. What would success look like to you?

Dr Ahmed:

One thing would be that we could do self-reported self-censorship. That would be something that one could measure and that has been credibly measured. One could work out whether that was declining. The second thing would be that since the Joint Committee on Human Rights report in 2018, which has been cited I believe by members of the Opposition, I could think of about 45 cases that have come up since then—documented cases—of disciplinary action against harassment of students, staff and so on for things that they have said that were legal and those are all public, so a second measure of success would be a decline in those cases.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I am afraid that brings us to the end of this session. We have no option but to close now, but can I thank both our witnesses today? You have generated a very spirited discussion and stimulated this Committee. I think that is a really good precedent. Thank you very much for coming along.