Examination of Witness

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 7th September 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Thomas Simpson gave evidence.

Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Labour, Bradford South 3:29 pm, 7th September 2021

We will now hear from Tom Simpson, who is an associate fellow at Policy Exchange. We have until 4.15 pm for this session. Mr Simpson, welcome. Could you please introduce yourselfQ ?

Thomas Simpson:

Thank you very much for having me at the Committee. It is a real pleasure to be here this afternoon. I am Tom Simpson, and I am associate professor of philosophy and public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, and a senior research fellow at Wadham College, Oxford. I was one of the co-authors of two Policy Exchange papers on this topic recently.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q Thank you, Mr Simpson, for joining us today. I understand that you are also a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. Thank you for your service. I just want to pick up on a few points. I want to start with a general question about how you envisage the provisions of this Bill changing the culture of freedom of speech on our campuses.

Thomas Simpson:

My disciplinary contribution here is as a philosopher—that is my academic discipline—and from working in the context of a school of government and public policy. I have spent quite a lot of time trying to think through what conceptual issues are at stake and what institutional means might try to address them.

Many of the reasons that media controversy around this issue arises is that there are these high-profile instances of dismissal or no-platforming. The really deep question is to what degree are they representative of a wider, underlying chilling effect across the sector. In my view, the real significance of this Bill is the long-term impact it will have over 10 years. One way to think about the Bill for those who are cautious about it is that it is really a form of anti-discrimination legislation. In the same way as the Equality Act 2010 has had, over a 10-year period, a really fundamental foundational shift in our public culture in the UK, my vision for this Bill is that, over a 10-year period, it will have a foundational, fundamental shift in culture within the university sector.

One of the complicated questions is really a sociological question. What seems at stake is that these high-profile controversies create a sociological order where a certain viewpoint is considered toxic, or is off the table or not up for discussion, which sends out a chilling message across the sector that you should not engage in that. The legal remedies that plug the gaps of previous legislation will start to stop that happening so that people will start to claim their free speech rights because they know that they are no longer subject to the risks they were previously subject to. As people claim their free speech rights, and as the courts uphold that, that should spread an opening effect across the sector.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q We have heard from various contributors, and there are obviously differing points of view, but it strikes me that in any organisation you have different points of view. I presume that you are able and confident enough to speak out. Why do you think others are not? As we heard from Stephen Whittle, you should just make your points loud and clear.

Thomas Simpson:

I decided not to speak out. The first issue I spoke out on was Brexit in 2016. This was a really catalytic issue for me. I was a year away from what is called reappointment to retirement age at that stage. Once I went through that process, which I did successfully, it becomes very difficult to sack me within the University of Oxford’s governing statutes, but I would not have spoken on academic freedom as an issue before I went through the reappointment to retirement age process because the public discourse around academic freedom as an issue is sufficiently controversial, even within academia, to mean that I risked jeopardising these formal processes of appointment. That was a personal judgment that I made. Now, the question is: is that a rational judgment?

In the summer of 2019, as I was beginning to think more formally about this, a research paper came out looking at an international sample of philosophers. It asked people to identify their ideological affiliation. What you get in that is that approximately 75% of philosophers identified as left leaning, about 11% as moderate centrists and about 14% as conservative. It then asked people, “To what extent are you willing to discriminate in job appointments, refereeing of journal articles and grant applications, against people of a different ideological persuasion?”

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q This was an international study?

Thomas Simpson:

It was a study of academics based internationally, so it bears on, but not directly, the UK situation. The finding there is that the willingness to discriminate is bipartisan, so people identifying as both left and right are willing to discriminate against those on the opposite side. In this particular study, it was 55% left against right and 45% right against left.

The consequence of that is that my expectation that, were I to express publicly that, as it happened, I voted leave in 2016 with half the country—half the country went the other way; there were reasonable people on both sides—the likelihood is, given that there is a right-left orientation to that now, that were I to sit on an appointments panel, approximately half of those who identified as on the left, the majority, would be willing to discriminate against me for that position. That is beginning to give evidence that there are rational grounds for that concern.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q You mentioned the figure of 75% being left leaning and you said that it was an international study. I think that in the report you talk about 75% of UK academics being left leaning, so it sounds like the UK is very much in correlation with the international picture, from what you have just said.

Thomas Simpson:

Our study really bore out figures that were consistent with the international picture.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q All organisations have different mixes. I would be very interested to know what the poll would be for officers within the UK armed forces—the political balance between them. Is it not just the case that that is the way it is? Academics who work in UK universities—you were also talking about the international picture—come into this work because they have an interest in those subject areas and they want to explore them. That is just the nature of it. I do not believe that heads of department hire people—perhaps you have a different point of view—or heads of department have a different point of view about whom they hire, based on their political allegiance or what their leaning may be. It is perhaps more about an interest in the topics that they have and what that will bring to the university. I think that in this report you talk about balance. This has been discussed during today’s sessions: how is it that you imagine balance gets achieved on our campuses through this piece of legislation?

Thomas Simpson:

What I agree with absolutely is that most institutions will have some kind of prevailing culture—it may have a political orientation or it may emerge in different respects, so on non-political issues. What is at stake then is whether those who have the majority viewpoint see themselves as entitled to take action against those who have the minority viewpoint, or differ from the culture in some important respect. And that tipping point is what I began to get the sense had changed. Clearly, the public sphere has been under real pressure—in turmoil—over the last five years, but there has been an emergence of a kind of animus associated with political viewpoint, which has made it very difficult to engage on these topics.

Part of the complexity of academic life is that so many of the really substantial decisions—for instance, on research grants, publications and appointments—take place in the privacy of your office. So you are reading documents; you just make a judgment. You are making a judgment of quality; that should be the primary consideration. But your judgment of quality is very difficult to disentangle, as we move into a more polarised environment, from a judgment of, “Is this the kind of person that I would like to have around? Is this the kind of person who is on my side?” And the moment we shift into that thinking, that is absolutely lethal for academia.

My view is that the great proportion of academics are committed to academic freedom, do their work with real integrity and do not fall into these traps. We saw that with the Cambridge University vote. But a relatively small proportion can then exert a chilling effect across a wider set of issues, which then make you, the individual, very reluctant to speak out publicly on that.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q But I sense that you are quite hung up about the figure that 75% of staff or academics in our universities are left-leaning and that somehow this is really a distortion, when clearly it is not, as you said, across the international academic landscape. I mentioned the alternative example of officers within our military. It is just that people of a certain persuasion gravitate to that line of work because that is what motivates and interests them. Surely that is simply the case at our universities.

Thomas Simpson:

The question is whether those who do not conform to the majority viewpoint feel a freedom and a permission to speak publicly, and whether they are welcomed in doing that, and my experience has been that that cannot be freely assumed in all the situations that it should be.

Just moving on to the work of the Bill, one of the lines that felt like it was becoming taking for granted in the last session, and that I might want to push back on, was the idea that the OfS would have the last word and that this director of academic freedom would be, in some sense, judge and jury. What the Bill really sets out is a series of persuasive measures by which that director can influence the culture within the sector. Indeed, any particular judgments that they make are not judgments on a particular individual case; they are recommendations, which both parties are free to ignore.

I think that is a very powerful scheme, because what it sets out is that it is a persuasive recommendation; whether or not a particular university would feel subject to it would depend on how well argued it is. The university will be free to take its own legal advice and say, “We think this is not persuasive and would not hold up in a court of law. We will therefore ignore the recommendation.” That would then set off a series of events, where the other party felt like the recommendation had not been enacted. It would be up to them to make the decision: “Am I sufficiently confident about the OfS’s recommendation and my view on this case that I want to take it to court?” So it would remain the case that the courts would be able to adjudicate on recommendations by the OfS.

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

Q Can I come in on this effect whereby you are saying that right-leaning academics are more likely to feel that they need to self-censor, which is kind of what you are suggesting, in an institution? Your report says of academics that are

“‘fairly right’ or ‘right’, 32%... have refrained from airing views” in front of colleagues. However, the report of general academics showed that 35% had refrained from sharing their views in front of colleagues. Now, that may be too high on all sides, but actually it shows that more left-wing academics than right-wing academics feel that they cannot share their views in front of colleagues. Surely this is not a right or left thing. I just wanted to move it away from this right or left thing. This is about making sure that colleagues feel safe to talk in the workplace, and surely a workplace-based or employment-based law would be better than a law that seems to address some other kind of issues.

Thomas Simpson:

I am very grateful for that intervention. I should really be clear again that I start off by saying I am a philosopher. My co-author, Eric Kaufmann, who I believe may be coming tomorrow, is far better placed to answer these questions. So questions of how the study relates to others are absolutely for him.

I think one of the real tragedies of the current situation is that this is seen in the general media discussion of academic freedom as a right-left thing. The history of the issue is a very different situation. So this has been a concern for the political left at very important points—the 1950s in America, most obviously, and the early 1900s in America—

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

Q And academics in economics departments?

Thomas Simpson:

Right. So my view is that there is a really obvious coalition here of those who are concerned with the long-term health of the sector, to make it a place where tolerance of different viewpoints exists. I think that is very helpful.

There was the final point, on the role of the employment tribunal. One of the important issues here is that this is a multi-strand approach, so I do not think it is necessarily “not this, but that”. However, I think there is a very serious question, which lawyers would be better placed to comment on than me, about whether employment tribunals should be a first port of call in cases of dismissal, for instance.

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

Q What do you think is the main threat to academic freedom as things currently stand?

Thomas Simpson:

The main threat is the chilling effect.

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

Q And will this legislation address that, in your opinion?

Thomas Simpson:

It provides the best means that we have got of addressing it. Whether it will succeed or not, I do not know. We have evidence—I gave you the example earlier of the Equalities Act. The test for the success of this Bill is not what happens in the six months afterwards—whether there are controversies, what happens afterwards. The test for success is in 10 years’ time, when it is more embedded.

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

Q Some commentators have said that legislation is not the answer. What is your response to that point?

Thomas Simpson:

I think they underestimate the power of law to shape culture. This is a cultural issue within the sector, but I think the law will influence how that culture evolves over time.

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

Q What importance do you place on the role of the director, which this legislation will create?

Thomas Simpson:

As I read the Bill, and certainly I suppose in my vision, the director plays a co-ordinating role for the OfS’s functions, but the director’s decisions should not be decisions that the director makes individually; they are decisions that the board would sign off on. As I have discussed earlier, I think there is a legal recourse for testing what the director’s decision should be. But the director should be someone who is active, who is energetic and who wants to drive this.

One of the other questions here at stake—it is one of the missing pieces from prior evidence—is that we have a very valuable document from 2019, the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s guidance on free expression. That really carefully walks through very practical details of how the section 43 freedom of speech duty should be implemented in particular situations. Ten key public bodies were brought in to agree to that guidance. There is both a process and an end point that is similar to that for the wider question of academic freedom that the Bill sets out provision for.

There is an outstanding question, which people are right to ask: what is the relationship between this and the Equality Act? In practice, the EHRC guidance threads the needle on most of those issues, and there will be a comparable process for academic freedom more widely.

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

Q Welcome. I have a few different questions. Picking up on your point about the Equality Act and how they interplay, would you recommend greater clarification of that in the Bill? I know that we have been promised guidance to follow, but it is very interesting, looking at the evidence that has come out. There seems to be a bit of a coalition between the Free Speech Union and various universities that that clarification is needed. I wondered what your thoughts were.

Thomas Simpson:

In the ideal world, that would be great. I do not know what the appetite is within the House of Commons for pressing on that, but I think it would be valuable, were it possible. The EHRC guidance generated considerable consent on how that relationship should be managed in practice. As an advocate of academic freedom and free speech, I think it does so in a way that is respectful of both the demands of the Equality Act, right and proper, and those of academic freedom.

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

Q The concern that I have read in the evidence is that it could be left to individual universities to try to manage what is freedom of speech versus somebody’s rights under the Equality Act.

Thomas Simpson:

In my view, the greatest challenge is awareness within the sector of what the Equality Act requires and, particularly, what it does not require. That is something that the EHRC guidance does a really good job on. I would leave it to the legal people to say whether that should be in the Bill, but it seems to me that the question of how to adjudicate that has already been quite carefully thought through.

One of the areas of extension that has not had the same consideration, and one of the shortfalls of the guidance—this is not a criticism of it, because it fulfils its purpose—is its scope. It focuses only on the section 43 duty as was. There is a wider set of questions about academic freedom, and freedom of teaching in particular, that it does not address.

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

Q To press further on that, at the moment the universities have this question of fulfilling freedom of speech “within the law”, but they of course have to adhere to non-statutory guidance as well. Do you think that needs greater clarification? What guidance exactly are universities meant to follow on protecting free speech “within the law”?

Thomas Simpson:

That is not an issue that I have considered previously.

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

Q Okay. Finally, I dare not provoke the wrath of Sir John by using the words “unconscious bias training”, but you seem to suggest in your role that people unconsciously choose people who are like them and have similar thoughts to them for roles. Do you think that legislation can address the unconscious bias that people have?

Thomas Simpson:

Pass—that is a very wide question. I certainly envisage that part of what will be involved in fulfilling the duty to promote academic freedom would be something like holding and convening events for freshers to think about how a university functions, and what it looks like to promote a place of free debate. My understanding is that it has proven very difficult through direct unconscious bias training to unpick that, but someone who is better versed in the evidence could speak to that.

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

Q Do you think the Bill as it stands addresses the unconscious bias that people have? We will not mention training, Sir John.

Thomas Simpson:

Whereas 30 years ago you might have had a situation where in a small business people said, “We don’t want to employ X because maybe she’ll be pregnant in six months’ time”, people now would rightly be very cautious about saying that, and ought to be, and they ought not to believe it. The fact that we have come to that position is in part due to anti-discrimination legislation, which has helped bring to people’s minds the dangers of thinking in that way.

One of the challenges that we need to think through in the sector is avoiding the risk of partisan thinking, because such thinking, whatever partisan tribe you are sucked into, generates the possibility of seeing people as indicative of a particular tribe that you might not like. Over time, that norm should embed itself. That is the view and the vision.

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

Q So there is nothing explicitly within the Bill other than your hoping that in 10 years we might see an impact.

Thomas Simpson:

No, it provides for the means by which that would happen. The functions of the director of free speech are to identify good practice and give advice on how that will take place. I think the vision is that the advice on what that good practice is would be what is required to fulfil the A3 statutory duty to promote academic freedom. Universities that are taking that advice would then start to implement that form of training, whatever it is.

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

Q So you see the bonus as being the advice that is given. Is it not possible for the OfS to give advice on something without having to legislate?

Thomas Simpson:

I think the crucial thing is that the legislation puts it within the OfS’s remit. It mandates that this should be within its remit. I think it was already within its remit beforehand; it just was not being carried out.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

Good afternoon, and thank you for coming to speak to us, Mr Simpson. You have written extensively on this issue, including a substantial paper you co-wrote in 2020 entitled “Academic freedom in the UK”. You wrote that you were focusing largely on improving oversight of academic freedom to ensure compliance with existing laws. I would be interested to know whether you feel that the Bill will satisfactorily improve oversight by governing bodies of higher level educational institutions, and whether it will also provide satisfactory extra university appeal mechanisms.Q

Thomas Simpson:

One of the really urgent amendments to the Bill, in my view, relates to the opening duty, what you might call the source duty, in clause 1. The point has already been made, and I think that there is some truth to it, that the Bill changes the emphasis of the statutory duty—I do not think intentionally. If we look at the detail, it states:

“The governing body of a registered higher education provider must take the steps that, having particular regard to the importance of freedom speech, are reasonably practicable for it to take”.

I just want to focus on the governing body issue. It focuses the statutory tort from which everything else follows— the statutory duties—on the steps that the governing body must take rather than on the way that constituent parts of the university conduct themselves.

Let me just put that in concrete terms. Suppose there is a case in which someone is not appointed because they are judged to have the wrong view on whatever issue, and they wish to test this and they have evidence that makes them think that is the case. What that person wants to do is test in the courts, “Did I not get the job because of my view?” That is what they want to test. What the statutory duty implies is that the courts will ask, “Did the governing body take the steps that were required to stop that happening?” Okay. That is a very, very different thing. Testing that is asking, “Have they had a discussion on the governing body of which there are minutes to record this happened? Did they put the right training in place? Did they appoint the right people? Is there some error that they have made?” What wants to be tested is whether the individual was treated unfairly in some sort of way.

Sending in the report, we advocated for a direct duty to be placed on higher education providers and not on the governing body of it to take steps. That is a really vital measure.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

Q May I look at the subsection after the one you have quoted from. Subsection (2) states that the

“objective is securing freedom of speech within the law”.

Is there some merit in considering an amendment so that it reads, “the objective is securing freedom of speech without unlawful interference”? That would focus the minds of those who are assessing the situation on whether the interference has been unlawful, as opposed to whether the speech is within the law or not, which brings into play all the complexities about the interpretation of what is within the law and is not, in terms of harassment and so forth.

Thomas Simpson:

I would need to think more carefully about the specific wording that is at stake there. Perhaps I can come back on that, because another really important question is raised by clause 2: the coverage of the duty. The coverage of the duty is currently specified as the staff of the provider, members, students and visiting speakers. In academic life, there is a really important category of what you might call affiliated academics—people with visiting fellowships or emeritus professorships, guest scholars or life fellows. The wording does not make it plain that such people would be included. Many of the specific controversies are about people not losing their jobs, because part of the charter of the university prevents that from happening or makes it very difficult for it to happen. But honorific positions lead to people being dropped like a hot potato.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

Q Thank you. That is a very relevant point. In fact, I will turn to proposed new part A3 of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, which is the

“Duty to promote the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom.”

It talks about promoting academic freedom for academic staff, and what you call affiliated academics could probably be included. What about academic freedom for students?

Thomas Simpson:

That is a very good question. One of the possibilities that exist, and that I would commend for revision of the Bill, is to think about a wider definition of academic freedom. In the English law context, we talk about the duty to protect freedom of speech in section 43 of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986, and the Education Reform Act 1988, which prevents dismissal. The much longer discussion of academic freedom tends to associate a number of other activities with it. Freedom as to how you teach would be a classic component of academic freedom—your freedom not to have your curriculum dictated to you as a teacher—as would your freedom to criticise your own institutions. The case law of the European Court of Human Rights has established that, and it goes back to UNESCO’s 1997 definition and prior cases.

The ability to publish and disseminate the results as you see fit is another activity that would classically be viewed as part of academic freedom. Currently, the Bill does not provide any specific protection for that, so a valuable addition to the Bill would be to expand the definition of academic freedom to include those kinds of activities. The wording for that needs to be carefully thought through, because this would be an innovation in terms of the recent history of legislation in the UK, but I think that would be a really valuable function for it.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

That was my next question, so thank you for answering it in advance.

Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Labour, Bradford South

Four more Members have indicated that they want to ask a question. I call Kevan Jones.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Q I am very clear that where we need legislation to protect people, I will support it. That is the way we should operate. I struggle with the Bill and understanding what the problem is. You used the phrase “chilling effect”. We heard this morning about people self-censoring, which is a very difficult concept to understand. You seem to be saying that the legislation will be a bit like equal rights legislation, but may I respectfully say that it will not? With equal rights legislation, at least you can define things—for example, you can define whether a woman is pregnant and whether she has been discriminated against. Defining notions of free speech will be very difficult.

Perhaps I am old-fashioned, because I do not believe that the state should intervene where it is not necessary. That is why I find the Bill, which comes from the Conservative party, very interesting. I am someone who believes that, with guidance—I am not suggesting that the existing guidance should not be used—academic institutions should be allowed to police themselves. Apart from Policy Exchange wanting to do a paper, and the examples that you have picked up, what is the extent of the problem? No one has been able to explain it to me. The Minister did not explain it on Second Reading, and you have not done so either. What is it?

Thomas Simpson:

One of the things that really strikes me is often overlooked in this debate is the structural similarity between discussions around free speech and discussions around other forms of discrimination. We have rightly been thinking very seriously about racial discrimination in the past year and a half in particular, and one of the features of that debate is that people who may not themselves be subject to discrimination on those grounds are often cautious or outright sceptical that there is a problem here, whereas those who are subject to it, or at risk of being subject to it, are often very clear that there is a problem here. There is an asymmetry of perspectives.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Q With respect, Mr Simpson, that is nonsense. If someone is black and they are discriminated against, whether in delivering a service or in a job, you can define that. What we have here—what I am trying to get to—is that you have used this phrase, “chilling effects”, which might get nice headlines, but does not actually define what the issue is. In terms of existing legislation, given that most universities have charters that protect freedom of speech, what is it that is not there at the moment? I have to say, I do not agree at all with the analogy with equality legislation, because it is not the same at all.

Thomas Simpson:

There are two problems. One is that existing statutory duties have very weak means of enforcement, so my view is that those gaps should be plugged. Two of the controversies in Cambridge in 2019 were around the dismissal of Noah Carl and its rescinding of the visiting fellowship invitation to Professor Jordan Peterson. Regardless of the merits of either case—I do not know the details of them—the astonishing thing about that was the lack of due process. The university in one case, and the college in the other case, made the decision, and there was nothing that the people involved could do, or very little that they could do: there were not ready legal means. There needs to be legal remedy.

Actually, one of the really surprising things about this discussion is that it is not an argument against taking measures, specifically in the human rights case, to guard against human rights being breached. You do not need to show that there are lots of patterns of human rights being breached.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Q But, with respect, those are covered already by the equality legislation and the Human Rights Act. You do not need another piece of legislation. You said earlier on that you would get a situation where, for example, somebody was not appointed because of their views, and you came up with this issue around right-left academics. My experience is that the reason people are appointed is usually old boys’ networks—and it is usually boys—within universities, not because of their political views, but this legislation is not going to stop someone not being appointed. You are not going to get someone at an interview saying, “I wouldn’t appoint you because I disagree with you on x, y and z and what you have said.” They will find some other reason, so can you explain where the Bill is going to actually do that? I cannot see it. It will not happen.

Thomas Simpson:

Exactly the same charges were made against the original passage of anti-discrimination legislation.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Q No, it is different. In those cases, you can actually define it: if, for example, a woman is pregnant and there is evidence that the individual did not get the job or was not promoted because of their sex, their gender or because they were pregnant, for example, you can define that. You can’t in here, and the problem with this Bill is the same problem that we had—with great respect to Policy Exchange—with the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, which set out to solve a problem that was not there and ended up in a situation where we took rights away from veterans and made things worse.

The issue I have with this is that, with a Conservative Government, shouldn’t we be upholding the freedoms of universities to decide what they want to do within the legal framework that is there, rather than what this is? It is going to put the director in a position whereby they will be able to dictate terms. Now, that might be okay when you have a Conservative Government, but what happens if you have a radical Government of a different persuasion that then starts saying to universities, “You will do x, y and z”? That is why I find it very difficult to understand the reasons why Conservatives are backing this piece of legislation, because interventions on that level are not what it says on the tin of conservatism.

Thomas Simpson:

The legislation does define it. It says that one of the objectives is

“securing that, where a person applies” for a given job,

“the person is not adversely affected in relation to the application because they have exercised their freedom within the law”, referring to an earlier clause.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Q How do you prove that? You cannot. In future, let’s say you get a Government of a different persuasion who puts a director in there who says, “Right, the new guidance is X, Y and Z. You will not be able to teach certain right-wing views on economics or various things.” The state is intervening in an area that I find remarkable that the Conservatives should be supporting.

Thomas Simpson:

The current situation is one in which universities mark their own homework about whether they have complied with the duty.

Thomas Simpson:

There is no accountability mechanism.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Q That is not true, because there are boards of universities. There is the advice put out in present legislation—I accept it might need updating, but you do not need legislation to do that. There is an idea that university boards just sit there and nod through things with academics—they do not. They challenge; that is their job. But it is not the job of the state to run universities. That is the thin end of the wedge with this legislation.

Thomas Simpson:

What this creates is an ecosystem of accountability, both within the sector and external to it.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

I beg to differ with you on that.

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

Q I am grateful to Emma for drawing attention to my views of the relationship between consciousness and unconsciousness. That is a philosophical debate we could have. I am interested to talk about your views on trust and truth, and whether you think trust is found through synthesis or, as Hegel said, truth was—but let us talk about that on another occasion and in a different place. Dealing with truth and trust, how far has the culture in universities changed? Has this concern about free speech and openness altered in recent years, in your view?

Thomas Simpson:

I can give my personal experience. I am cautious about drawing too strong conclusions from that. My personal experience was that as an undergraduate from 1999 to 2002, I felt free to argue a position in my final year dissertation that I knew my markers would reject, but would recognise the quality of the work on its own merits. I had the confidence to do that. The topic was whether God existed, broadly speaking. Cambridge was a very secular faculty at that time; I was examining a recent contribution to that debate.

I had a moment about three years ago where an undergraduate student in a different department from where I work was talking to me about their political philosophy paper. They had written all the ethics of migration, which is a sensitive subject. The philosophical debate is whether countries have the right to control who crosses the borders into their country. The two positions are what is called open and closed borders. The philosophical debate is already right on the edge of the Overton window for public discourse on that topic. It became clear in the conversation that the student’s personal views were in favour of closed borders, so I said, “What did you argue for in the essay?” The student replied, “Oh, I argued for open borders. It would be silly not to do that, because that is where the lecturers were coming from.”

That to me had a sense of tragedy: here was an individual who believes something different and thought they had arguments for that, but felt that the grade they would receive on the exam would be different because of the content of what they argued for. That sense of danger about particular viewpoints is something I have sensed grow within the university over the last five or six years. I think it roughly tracks some of the turmoil we have had in the public space more generally in that time. It is mitigating somewhat now, but the patterns are in place and we need to take steps to counter that.

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

Q The implication from earlier witnesses, Arif Ahmed, Nigel Biggar and others, is that there is what amounts to a culture of fear. You are setting out the very reason why the Bill is pertinent now there has been a change. Is it that what is acceptable has been redefined, and what is unacceptable is now no longer permissible? It will always be true that there will be differences of opinion, and some people would find certain views agreeable, but is the change that ideas have gone from being disagreeable to, in effect, prohibited?

Thomas Simpson:

I have been really inspired by the observation that Scalia and RBG, the two SCOTUS justices, used to go to the opera together. They were ideological opposites and I am sure that they even viewed the other person’s views as reprehensible at times, but there was a collegiality about their ability to do their work together. That collegiality exists in very many places, but it is under pressure, and that is the challenge that we are facing.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Q Where is the evidence?

Thomas Simpson:

I have already given the evidence.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

We need figures, facts and this, that and the other, but we are not seeing any of that.

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

Perhaps a way of resolving the difference of view between the right hon. Member for North Durham and the witness is for the witness to cite some of that evidence in writing as a follow up? I would like to know about courses that have been cancelled, stopped or never delivered, speakers who have not been invited or where invitations have been withdrawn, and funding that has not been granted on the basis of all of those things being “unacceptable”. It would be very useful if you could provide some kind of note with that as a follow up, which will hopefully allow us to move on.

Photo of Gareth Bacon Gareth Bacon Conservative, Orpington

Paraphrasing slightly, you talked about the chilling effect when you were answering the Minister earlier. Over what period of time do you think the chilling effect, as you put it, has developedQ ?

Thomas Simpson:

In my view, the past five years have been particularly difficult. I think it is a longer-running trend and probably stretches back to early 2010s. I was out of academia for a key period during the early 2000s. I do not know where the data is on that. If I may come back on the data question, Professor Eric Kaufmann is in a much better position on that, as that is his speciality, whereas I am the philosopher here, so he would be well placed to speak to about those challenges.

Photo of Gareth Bacon Gareth Bacon Conservative, Orpington

Q You also said—again, I paraphrase, so if I get it wrong, correct me—that you did not know if the legislation would succeed, but it was the best chance of leading to a cultural change over, perhaps, a 10-year period. If I were to ask you to speculate, if the Bill were not taken through, what would we see happening over the next 10 years?

Thomas Simpson:

At the moment, the crucial question is the position of those involved in university leadership and administration. At the moment, if someone says something controversial, even reprehensible, a group of people on social media organise a campaign against the person, but for a university administration making a decision on whether to allow the event to go ahead, whether to rescind availability of premises, whether to allow this person to stay in post or whatever it is, their incentives are, “I am concerned for the reputation of the institution and what I am seeing is a lot of outrage on social media; that is what I am seeing.” The incentives are to give way to that and that is what we have seen. That is the presenting issue in these high-profile controversies.

What we need is to change the incentive structure for individuals in that, and not just change the incentive structure but affirm through legislation and through, as it were, the public speech of Parliament that academic freedom matters. When this happens, it will allow people to hide behind the legal duty. The conversation is such now that even speaking in favour of academic freedom makes one liable to accusations of being a reprehensible person and what a horrid attitude it is that you are hiding. Even universities feel that pressure, I think. The danger is that we just carry on in the current trajectory, which is that events do not go ahead and people hold their tongue. Our research environment and the hurly-burly of debate on campus just becomes not a hurly-burly, but one in which there is a prevailing viewpoint.

Photo of Gareth Bacon Gareth Bacon Conservative, Orpington

It seems to me that what you are describing the difference between mob rule and the rule of law.

Photo of Gareth Bacon Gareth Bacon Conservative, Orpington

You have had your say, thank you very much.

Thomas Simpson:

I am very cautious about the language I would use to describe that situation, but I want the rule of law rather than the rule of politics. That is the frank truth.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q You cited the examples of the two academics at Cambridge to illustrate your position. Surely those particular cases needed to be dealt with by changes to employment law—and that is the issue with this Bill. The Opposition understand that there are certain things that need to be updated in employment law, the online harms Bill legislation and maybe in equalities, but this seems to be the wrong way of going about it. In the two cases you quoted, surely employment law would have sorted that?

Thomas Simpson:

As I said earlier in the evidence, I would seriously support considering introducing the employment tribunal as the first court to consider cases of dismissal in that situation, in addition to the existing measures in here.

Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Labour, Bradford South

There are no further questions from Members, so I thank Mr Simpson for his evidence, and we will move on to the next panel.