. Defending free speech on UK campuses means defending the right to organise | Ceasefire Magazine

Defending free speech on UK campuses means defending the right to organise Comment

The Government's latest effort to regulate free speech in UK universities is a threat not just to academic freedom but to political organising and dissent on campus, and must be challenged on those terms, writes Azfar Shafi.

New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Thursday, February 18, 2021 21:06 - 0 Comments


A familiar cry

Addressing the conference of the Jewish charity Limmud in the fading days of 2017, then-Universities & Science Minister Jo Johnson announced that the newly-formed university regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), would be charged with regulating ‘free speech’ on universities.

Summoning up the contemporary spectre of ‘no platforming’, he stated that “academics and students alike must not allow a culture to take hold where silence is preferable to a dissenting voice”, before going on to offer customary platitudes about the liberal university and the “marketplace of ideas”.

This agenda was pursued by Jo Johnson’s immediate successor, Sam Gyimah, and has since been carried forth by Education Minister Gavin Williamson, who has adopted into his brief the government’s manufactured cultural backlash against the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.

This shift has not been restricted to the UK. The question of free speech and the liberal university has roused the sentinels of reaction worldwide. In June 2018, James Paterson, senator for Australia’s governing right-wing Liberal Party, called for universities to face fines for failing to uphold free speech, while fellow senator Amanda Stoker wondered whether Australian universities’ research funding should be conditional on their upholding free speech. For his part, then-Education Minister Dan Tehan announced a review into rules and regulations protecting freedom of speech on university campuses. Meanwhile, in March 2019, former US President Trump signed an executive order that would withhold federal research and education funds from universities that failed to certify that they will protect free-speech rights on campus.

While Gavin Williamson’s latest salvo in the campus ‘free speech’ wars does represent an escalation — not least in its proposal to expand OfS’ free speech policing to student unions and the threat of new legislation — the theme has become a well-worn fixture of this government’s agenda, increasingly being deployed in service of a culture war while forming part of a strategic attack on public institutions.

Beyond hypocrisy

The theme of a ‘free speech’ crisis on campuses is hardly novel, and the response whenever it has been raised has been similarly unoriginal: often hinging on accusations of hypocrisy and double standards.

The hypocrisy has certainly flowed in thick over the years. While in one breath denouncing threats to ‘free speech’ on universities, Jo Johnson’s speech at Limmud included an enthusiastic promotion of the censorious IHRA definition of antisemitism, which has been used to silence and suppress pro-Palestine activism.

Meanwhile, the very Office for Students which is supposedly tasked with defending ‘free speech’ on campus is, at the same time, charged with overseeing the Prevent duty in universities, by purging ‘extremist’ ideas from campus.

The government’s faux concerns over liberal rights strike an exceptionally distasteful note now, coming as they do in the midst of a major law & order crackdown by the Home Office, which is poised to roll back the ability to protest, including the investigation of Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion over ‘extremism’ concerns.

A wider context

Hypocrisy may be this government’s default mode of being, but it is beside the point. Policing universities in the name of free speech is bound up with a set of structural issues that need to take more of a central place in the discussion and agitation around it.

These include the manner in which the institutional basis of rights has been progressively hollowed out in universities under corporatisation, and the wider context of the higher education (HE) sector being securitised and subordinated to the wills of government.

That is to say that discussions around ‘free speech’, as with the broader suite of democratic freedoms, need to take into account the conditions in which such freedoms are made possible.

While a great deal of heat and energy has been expended arguing over the content of rights such as free speech — To whom should it be extended or denied? At what point can it be restricted? — discussion of the institutional basis of such rights has been excised from the conversation. Yet abstract commitments to free speech and rights as values amount to little without institutions acting to give them force, and without a culture and practice of popular democracy to serve as their ultimate guarantor.

The deployment of ‘free speech’ in such abstract or literalist terms has allowed it to be hived off from the issue of political organising, and mobilised by the right to undermine political organising further.

The net outcome of the free speech wars over the last six years, as steered by the government, has been for it to anoint itself the arbiter of free speech, enshrine this power within an arm’s-length state regulator, and appoint a political associate to implement its programme.

Fundamentally, this is what the culture war is about: it is not simply an exercise in ‘populism’, or merely a distraction from power, but the means through which institutional power is advanced. Levying claims of ‘hypocrisy’, however well-deserved, is to speak in the language of principles against a government that responds with the language of power.

Within UK Higher Education (HE), the question of ‘rights’ and university democracy cannot be decoupled from the structure of power in universities today: the malignant growth of managerialism as universities have been corporatised over the last decade, or the hardening of internal hierarchy that is part and parcel of HE’s neoliberalisation.

The very example seemingly referenced in Williamson’s announcement — Leicester University’s proposals to cut courses following a drop in student demand, cynically recast as  a ‘decolonising the curriculum’ effort — is the purest expression of the competitive market ethos this government has injected into the HE sector.

The University of Leicester’s justification for mass redundancies — as a means of securing long-term financial stability — reflects the climate of precarity and uncertainty that has enveloped the sector since the new funding regime was introduced a decade ago: a climate that structurally constrains and suffocates the exercise of rights across the board, by ratcheting up the cost of doing so.


As the locus of power in universities has been driven upwards, the realm of surveillance has expanded outwards. University students and staff have found themselves progressively shut out from the processes of change within their institutions, while the implementation of policies like Prevent, immigration monitoring under the Hostile Environment, and the policing of free speech, have all eroded the basis for practical solidarity and organising.

Prevent has been particularly damaging: it has institutionalised a culture of surveillance to deter political organising, consolidated the relationship between universities and agents of state surveillance, and created an operational lacuna whereby democratic rights can be abrogated arbitrarily. This is even before factoring in the cost to those facing the brunt of Prevent’s impact in practice: those referred to the programme, undergoing disciplinary measures or facing pressure to cancel events.

Above all, these policies don’t simply inhibit the exercise of free speech or intellectual discussion in the abstract, but seek to dissolve the means through which students and staff can actively challenge and reorganise power within their institutions.

The fact that the OfS will simultaneously be regulating both free speech and the Prevent duty on UK campuses is not, in reality, such an odd combination; they are two sides of the same coin. Both the Prevent duty and ‘free speech’ — as the government understands the term — are a means of policing political organising on campus, and undercutting the politicisation of university staff and students.

In delimiting the realm of ‘acceptable’ freedoms while punishing anything that falls outside, both of the OfS’ twin remits are being used to institutionalise the country’s rightward shift within the Higher Education sphere. And both serve as expressions of a wider securitisation agenda that locks in neoliberal reforms within the sector by deploying the very bureaucracy that has congealed at the top of universities.

A different way of talking about rights

In combination, these shifts have left the institutional basis of ‘rights’ and university democracy desiccated and brittle, with the only buffer to them being the strength of student and staff agitation that this government’s free speech policing is seeking to undermine.

Hemming the debate on rights and free speech in at the level of cultural ‘values’ — without connecting this to the material basis of such rights — only obscures the true exercise of power. This ‘culture war’ has legitimised the deeper intrusion by this government into the governance of universities, steadily gutting them of any meaningful autonomy. As such, the fightback cannot succeed if it is carried out on the same terms set by the government that has instigated this assault, namely by claiming actualfidelity to free speech.

Therefore, simply defending free speech or academic freedoms, or pointing out hypocrisy, are woefully inadequate responses. This is by no means to suggest ceding ground on free speech and rights to the political right. Rather, it is a call to reconnect ‘free speech’ and ‘academic freedom’ to the broader question of the right to organise — especially against the hollowing out of university democracy, the neoliberalisation of HE and the institutionalisation of policing and security policies within it.

Rather than just jealously guarding the principles of the liberal academy, we should also endeavour to build a more expansive solidarity with those facing the sharp end of state violence under this ‘law & order’ government. It is only by approaching this as a political struggle, rather than a competition between rival value claims, that universities can wrest back their rightful status as sites of free expression and critical dissent.

Azfar Shafi is a researcher on counter-terrorism and security. His interests include movements organising against policing, state racism and imperialism.

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