Pin It
London’s Free Palestine protest 26
Photography Nahwand Jaff

How the Tories are suppressing freedom of expression in UK universities

While complaining that universities are a site of progressive ‘indoctrination’, British conservatives are working hard to suppress student activism and censor opposing viewpoints

Sometimes hypocrisy is so brazen that pointing it out feels redundant. By now, we all know that the right’s commitment to free speech is selective and self-serving: if a public figure gets called out on social media for being transphobic, that’s proof of a troubling turn towards totalitarianism. If a student gets doxxed by the tabloid press for expressing a spicy view about white men or supporting a strike, well, that just serves them right. The Tory government, along with a network of hard-right think tanks and publications, is now ramping up a campaign to suppress activism and freedom of expression in British universities. 

Ever since the 1960s, which saw the beginning of the modern student protest movement, the right has used a confected “free speech crisis” as a weapon against universities. When the NUS first adopted a policy of no-platforming fascists back in 1974, this inspired as much condemnation as it does today. So it’s not a new preoccupation for the Tories, but the current government is going in harder than ever. After vowing to end “woke nonsense” last year, Rishi Sunak is appointing a free speech tsar, who will be tasked with investigating universities who “restrict debate” and advising regulators on imposing fines where breaches occur. This May, at a conference in London dedicated to ‘National Conservatism’, Tory MP Miriam Cates went so far as to blame Britain’s low birth rate on the fact that young people are learning about racism, gender and the climate crisis: as she put it, there is “a cultural Marxism that is systematically destroying our children’s souls”. Conservatives view universities as a site of left-wing indoctrination, where molly-coddled students are being shielded from encountering arguments that will hurt their feelings or challenge their pre-existing viewpoints.

In reality, it’s the government that has already deployed a number of mechanisms to suppress freedom of expression. One of the most impactful has been the Prevent strategy, a counter-terrorism programme that requires schools, universities and other public institutions to file a report on anyone who is judged vulnerable to extremism. Since its launch in 2005, it has mostly been used against the Muslim community, although this is starting to change. 

The programme is intended to combat “extremism”, which is a subjective term with no legal definition. This ambiguity has allowed the government to shift the parameters in line with its own interests: people have been referred for supporting environmentalism, Palestine solidarity, animal rights, Black Lives Matter and “far-left” politics. In 2020, counter-terrorism officials even labelled Extinction Rebellion as an extremist ideology, and suggested that young people who participate in planned school walk-outs should be reported to the programme. According to John Holmwood, an academic who along with Dr Layla Aitlhadj, co-authored a critical report titled The People’s Review of Prevent, the scapegoating of Muslims has helped to pave the way for the programme’s ongoing expansion.

Aitlhadj, the director of the organisation Prevent Watch, believes the vague definition of ‘extremism’ is by design. “I don’t think they will ever define the term, because once they do, they’re set within those parameters and can’t keep moving the goalposts,” she says. Last year, Sunak promised to bolster the strategy, and widen the definition of extremism even further to include people who “vilify” Britain, and “[root out] those who are vocal in their hatred of our country”. This is someone who has positioned himself as a staunch defender of freedom of speech: he might not agree with what you say but, by God, he will defend to the death your right to say it – unless you tweet ‘Britain sucks lol”, in which case he’s referring you directly to the counter-terrorism unit.

It has had a significant impact on universities, with external speakers being disinvited and events being cancelled (mostly involving Islam.) Most individual referrals don’t go anywhere, but the programme still has an insidious effect: a 2020 study found it had created an atmosphere of “mutual suspicion and surveillance”, where Muslim students regularly felt compelled to self-censor. According to journalist Ilyas Nagdee, writing in The Guardian in 2019, many students avoided expressing opinions on subjects like the Iraq war or racism in Britain for fear of being referred – an anxiety which was “especially heightened for students of colour and Muslim students”. Four years later, the situation hasn’t improved.

Rishi Sunak might not agree with what you say but, by God, he will defend to the death your right to say it – unless you tweet ‘Britain sucks lol’, in which case he’s referring you directly to the counter-terrorism unit

In 2021, for the first time, Prevent referrals for far-right extremism outnumbered those related to Islam, which many conservative commentators interpreted as a distortion of the programme’s rightful aim. The government published an independent review, earlier this year, which was conducted by William Shawcross – a man who once said that “Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future”. Unsurprisingly, his report concluded that Prevent should cut the far-right some slack and return to its original purpose of targeting Muslims. It recommended that universities deploy it more, but in a way which seemed designed to ensure that right-wing speakers would avoid being affected.

As Aitlhadj sees it, Prevent is just one part of a broader strategy to suppress free expression, which includes various new laws targeting protest, online speech and migrant rights. Its power as a tool of suppression is likely to get worse, because new offences are being created all the time. Under the 2023 Public Order Act, protest tactics – such as ‘locking on’ – are being criminalised more harshly than ever, and the Shawcross report provides a definition of terrorism which includes damage to property. “Because Prevent operates in a ‘pre-crime’ space, it can be used to target speech relating to those new offences,” says Holmwood. If supporting or calling for disruptive protest is grounds for a referral, the chilling effect which Prevent has created at universities could become even more intense.

The issue of Palestine has also been particularly impacted by Prevent. “There is an extreme double standard around who has the freedom to speak. As soon as you’re doing anything for the rights of an oppressed group, suddenly the Tories and the right are deeply concerned,” Stella Swain, youth and student officer at Palestine Solidarity Campaign, tells Dazed. 

This suppression of Palestine solidarity is nothing new, but it is escalating. Last year, Nadhim Zahawi (who was Education Minister at the time) announced that any students in the UK who chanted the Palestinian liberation slogan “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” should be reported to the police – on the spurious grounds that the slogan is antisemitic. “That would be an almost unprecedented attack on student organising in the UK,” says Stella. “If you say that Palestinian students, who often get completely erased from these discussions, are not allowed to articulate their own experience of oppression or to call for their own people’s liberation, that is an incredible attack on their freedom within universities.” There’s also further legislation in the pipeline which would ban universities and other public bodies from making ethical spending and investment choices, especially if that means divesting from companies involved in Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights

“It all leads to an environment where young people who get involved in Palestine campaigning at university are at risk of intense media and online harassment if they ever do speak out,” says Swain. “These students, who are basically just saying that the rights of Palestinians should be respected, become public enemy number one. This closes off conversations about Palestinian rights, because people become too scared to even enter that space.” Within secondary education, the issue has been censored even more directly. According to Aitlhadj, large numbers of children have been excluded, given detention or otherwise sanctioned for trying to show solidarity with Palestine at school, particularly around the time of the Sheikh Jarrah protests in May 2021 (when six Palestinian families were forcibly displaced in occupied-Jerusalem to make way for Israeli settlers.) “There was evidence that counter-extremism units were responsible for communications to the schools about how to deal with these students,” she says.

Whether it’s the Prevent strategy or the various new laws which curtail the right to protest, the right’s assault on freedom of expression is on the rise. It’s a disturbing direction of travel. But on the other hand, it’s hard not to feel optimistic about the fact that Conservatives are so worried about young people being too left-wing and the implications this has for the party’s future prospects – on this last point, they are often surprisingly candid. These fears are well-founded: unlike their parents and grandparents, millennials are showing little sign of drifting to the right as they enter middle age and, unless things change dramatically, there’s little reason to believe that younger generations will be any different.

But it’s not just about the promise of the Conservatives being wiped out electorally at some point in the future. “The fact the Tories are so worried shows that they recognise that students and young people have a huge amount of impact in the present” says Swain, citing as an example campaigns which have led to over half of British universities divesting funds from fossil fuel companies. “In recent years, students are talking more about how they can get their universities to divest from arms companies that create incredible harm worldwide. They have a greater understanding of colonialism and how different struggles are tied together. As a result, there has been a concerted attempt to split Palestine off from other issues and present it instead as this eternal, unidentifiable war that we shouldn't get involved in. But it’s not working.”

What the right fails to understand is that young people are not responding to ‘indoctrination’, but the reality of their own lives: stagnant wages, student debt, the never-ending housing crisis and direct experience of various forms of oppression. No campaign to end ‘woke nonsense’ will change that. Rather than a confident assertion of power, these attacks on freedom of expression feel like a desperate last gasp.

Join Dazed Club and be part of our world! You get exclusive access to events, parties, festivals and our editors, as well as a free subscription to Dazed for a year. Join for £5/month today.