It’s not like there’s other, more pressing issues to attend to
Throughout the pandemic, the UK government has continually failed students. First years suffered mass, disorganised lockdowns – with some literally caged into their halls – many international students have been forced to turn to food banks, and thousands are leading the charge in the biggest university rent strike in 40 years. But the government isn’t interested in any of this, and instead wants to tackle the supposed ‘free speech crisis’ on UK campuses.
On Sunday (February 14), The Telegraph announced the government’s plan to appoint a “free speech champion” for universities. Set to be officially laid out next week, the proposal will see higher education institutions and student unions faced with fines if they restrict free speech, while staff, students, or event organisers could seek compensation if they’re disciplined for their bigoted views.
A Department for Education source told The Telegraph that “unacceptable silencing and censoring on campuses is having a chilling effect”. The source is likely referring to right-wing academics being banned from campuses – both the University of East Anglia and the University of Essex recently cancelled seminars by alleged transphobes.
Freedom of speech is at the very core of our democracy. It is absolutely right that our great universities – the historic centres of free thinking and ideas – will now have this freedom protected and bolstered with stronger legal protections. https://t.co/TrfFN47u3a— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) February 16, 2021
However, a 2018 report found that censorship isn’t as big of a problem as the media suggests. According to The Times, less than 0.1 per cent of talks faced any interruption, with just six out of 10,000 speaker events cancelled – four of these lacked the required paperwork, one was a fraudster, and the other was a talk by Jeremy Corbyn, which was simply moved to a larger venue off-campus.
The government has clarified that the new regulations won’t mean student unions or universities will have to invite particular speakers, nor never cancel previously planned events, and that speakers are free to decide who they do or don’t want to share a platform with.
“Even where lip service is paid to free speech, too often leaders have not done enough to defend those faced with ‘cancellation’, to prevent the abuse and personal harassment of those with heterodox views, and to actively build a culture in which free speech is openly valued and celebrated,” education secretary Gavin Williamson said in a statement.
"It's bizarre to us the government's focus is on this as opposed to supporting students who are in financial hardship right now"— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) February 16, 2021
NUS VP Hillary Gyebi-Ababio says there is no evidence of a free speech crisis as Gavin Williamson announces new role for unishttps://t.co/DRXw3K9AsZpic.twitter.com/YOMhnx00bW
Many have criticised the decision, which shows the government’s bizarre priorities during the pandemic. “Students are worrying about when they can return to campus, how to pay their rent, and how they will get a job,” Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, said. “The government has abandoned them throughout this crisis and is manufacturing this debate to distract from their own failures.”
Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, the National Union of Students (NUS) vice president for higher education, said in a statement: “Student unions are committed to freedom of expression and are the very home of rigorous debate and new ideas. There is no evidence of a freedom of expression crisis on campus. At a time when students are facing untold hardship, the government would be much better advised to focus on providing the practical support that students desperately need.”