Eric Kaufmann is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange
The Higher Education Freedom of Speech Bill completed its passage through Parliament this month. It’s been a long three-year road to victory.
The Bill places a duty on universities to not just protect, but promote academic freedom. More importantly, it establishes an academic freedom directorate within the Office for Students, the sector regulator, to monitor university policies. The Academic Freedom Director is likely going to be an individual with a strong belief in the mission.
The directorate will host an ombudsman to which students can swiftly appeal if universities try to punish them for holding controversial views, as occurred with gender-critical feminists like Jo Phoenix at the University of Essex or Kathleen Stock at the University of Sussex. In addition, the legislation empowers students and staff to sue universities that violate their academic freedom, a powerful incentive for university managers to reject the illiberalism of woke activists.
The enforcement provisions are world-leading, since the experience of other jurisdictions such as the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Alberta show that merely requiring universities to adopt high-sounding academic freedom policies has no effect on cancel culture. The British legislation couldn’t be more different.
In terms of academic freedom, it is a game-changer. It is already having an impact – as can be seen by the way in which Oxford’s Student Union rapidly u-turned on a decision to bar the Oxford Union from Fresher’s Fair.
Government can be vital for protecting human liberty. How can this be? Society is made up of the state, institutions and citizens. Courts are needed when government oversteps, but what happens when institutions turn illiberal?
When institutions or private actors violate the liberty of citizens, as is the case with universities which punish staff and students for legal speech, a democratically-elected government should prevent them from doing so. The idea that the government can protect liberty draws on the Hobbesian tradition of liberalism, which argues that the state has a role in limiting private violence in order to guarantee human freedom.
It is rare to see effective legislative pushbacks against wokeness. Few administrators have the mettle to stand up to progressive activists claiming to speak on behalf of historically marginalized groups while intoning that ‘speech is violence’. Now university leaders, no matter how supine, can simply point to the law and tell the activists there is nothing they can do for them. This is a far more realistic solution than praying for that rare breed, the brave administrator, to emerge.
What explains this unusual success story? Beginning in 2019, allies from across the political spectrum joined forces to fight for academic freedom. In that year, a number of us at the think tank Policy Exchange met to write the first of two academic freedom reports that we felt would be required to communicate the depth of the problem and how to legislatively address it.
Our 2019 report showed that British students were in many ways divided over free speech, and that reading a short passage in favour of expressive freedom, or ‘emotional safety’, its opposite, could strongly shift student attitudes. We set out a series of legislative proposals that we felt would constrain the ability of universities to suppress academic freedom, developing them further in our 2021 report. This publication revealed that few British academics supported cancel culture, but that many – especially conservative – academics self-censored in teaching and research.
Our proposals helped shape the government’s 2019 Manifesto and were cited in its 2021 Higher Education Freedom white paper. Many others, encompassing multiple institutions and actors, tirelessly argued for the bill in the press and in Parliament, and government ministers had the courage and commitment to first prioritise this Bill, and then push it successfully through Parliament.
It was a team effort and shows that with patience, skill, and determination, those who believe in freedom, whether they are on the right, the left, or classical liberals, can resist the seemingly inevitable march of the illiberal left through our institutions.