Freedom of speech has long been as an essential ingredient of Britishness. When the British were asked fifteen years ago what defined their national character the most popular answer by a long way was not the Empire, the country’s defeat of fascism or red letter boxes but “people’s right to say what they think” and Britain’s “sense of fairness and fair play”.
Fast forward to today, however, and you do not need to look hard to find a growing sense of public alarm about how these ancient and much-cherished freedoms are under serious threat. This concern over the surveillance of speech, the dismissal of controversial or problematic speakers and anxieties over a new “cancel culture” perhaps explain why, only last week, one of Britain’s leading pollsters found that nearly one in every two of us believe that “people these days are less free to say what they think”.
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But most worrying of all is how these freedoms seem to be under attack in the one place where people are supposed to feel completely free to say what they think: higher education. Universities, in theory at least, are meant to be the purest example of the marketplace of ideas — institutions where we debate and discuss the pursuit of truth from different perspectives and where, along the way, we develop well-rounded, critical thinkers who go on to become the leaders of tomorrow.
But something, somewhere has gone fundamentally wrong. At least that’s the conclusion one draws after reading an important new Policy Exchange report, Academic Freedom in the UK: Protecting Viewpoint Diversity, co-authored by Remi Adekoya, Eric Kaufmann and Thomas Simpson. It paints a depressing picture of what is unfolding in our universities. Based on the largest survey of academics that has been carried out in years, it suggests that many of our higher education institutions are failing to protect and promote the “viewpoint diversity” that has long been one of their core strengths.
In recent years British universities have drifted way to the Left. Three-quarters of academics who were surveyed support Left-wing parties; fewer than one in five support parties of the Right. Just 9% of academics in the social sciences and humanities voted to Leave the European Union and just 7% identify as “right of centre”. It also points to how those who do deviate from the orthodoxy experience a tough time. Only 54%of academics would feel comfortable sitting next to a Leave supporter over lunch, and just 37% would feel comfortable sitting next to somebody who holds gender-critical views.
Some readers will find this striking, but, to be honest, I’m not surprised. I’ve worked in universities for nearly 20 years and I now divide that time into two distinct eras — the Before Brexit (B.B.) era and the After Brexit (A.B.) era. Life Before Brexit was easier. Life after Brexit has been, well, interesting.
I never campaigned for Brexit. I would not even consider myself to be a passionate Brexiteer. But when a majority of voters decided to leave the European Union I did make my view known that the vote should be respected and delivered. I joined with a small group of academics who held different perspectives but nonetheless shared a belief that it was important to respect the outcome and explore the opportunities that Brexit presented to fix a settlement that was, clearly, not working out well for more than a few groups in British society.
I had spent more than a decade researching these “left-behind” communities and thought their voice needed to be heard just as loudly as the voice of graduates and middle-class professionals had been heard over the preceding three decades. Given that I write for media I also thought it important to let members of the public, and my students, know where I stood in the debate and to demonstrate that there was a diversity of views within the academy.
None of this struck me as being particularly radical — but among academics it is. In fact, the report estimates that people like me represent 9% of academics in the social sciences and humanities. It is at this point when the “chilling effects” kicks in, when colleagues who break with established convention or question what are considered to be “sacred values” within the wider profession are pressured to remain silent. Britain remaining in the European Union is one such sacred value that chimes with the general liberal cosmopolitan outlook of most academics.
What does “chilling” look like? It inevitably differs from one person to the next, but in my experience it has involved: being disinvited from workshops in my core research area; receiving fairly regular abuse on social media from academics and “FBPE types”, either in the form of direct abuse or indirectly through constant subtweeting; being asked about my personal political views during interviews for research grants; being asked to account for inviting a conservative onto campus; being accused of “going native” or being an “apologist” for Brexiteers and populists; being made aware that I was considered “problematic”; and, more generally, experiencing social “distancing” from colleagues.
Many of these things would simply never have occurred had I woken up on 24 June, 2016, and announced, as many of my colleagues did, that I was going to oppose Brexit with every fibre of my being. It is a form of harassment that would simply never be tolerated were it directed at, say, a religious minority on account of their beliefs. One irony is that some people who claim to be the guardians of tolerance and liberalism are, in reality, not that tolerant or liberal at all.
There were certainly exceptions. A few senior pro-Remain colleagues spoke out against it, though I can count them on one hand. And it is important to say that many academics contacted me privately to let me know that they found certain things unacceptable or, more often, to send me links to further examples of abuse and harassment being thrown my way. More than a few are retired or close to retirement. Many say that were they to have their time again they would not become an academic for precisely these reasons. Others simply felt unable to voice their disapproval publicly out of fear of experiencing the same chilling effects. This is especially true for younger colleagues who hope to climb the ladder and so need to keep the various ideological “gate-keepers” on side. As a professor, and somebody who has a life outside of academia, I was able to weather the storm.
I would like to think that my experience is unique but the report suggests otherwise. It suggests that academics who lean to the Right are significantly more likely to report experiencing a hostile climate within their departments. Only two out of every ten pro-Brexit academics in the social sciences feel that a Leaver, like them, would feel comfortable expressing their views to colleagues; nine out of every ten academics say that a Remainer would feel comfortable doing so.
Nonconformists are also more likely to report “self-censoring” and face discrimination when applying for research grants and promotion or submitting manuscripts for publication. The authors suggest that one in three academics would seek to avoid hiring a known supporter of Brexit while between one-third and a half who review grant applications would give them a lower score if they adopted a conservative perspective to exploring a research question. Certainly, my experience points to the conclusion that you are only considered “objective” in academe if you are criticising conservatives and pointing out what is wrong with Brexit or Boris Johnson.
It is important to note that this can cut both ways. For example, the report also found that Right-wing academics would discriminate in favour of a Leave supporter over a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn. While about one in three academics who voted Remain would likely discriminate against Leavers even if the latter have a strong track record, pro-Leave academics would similarly likely appoint a weaker “centrist” applicant than somebody on the Left. But given the baseline rates of political identification the playing field is tilted decisively against those who lean to the right or support Brexit.
There are also some glimmers of hope. Thankfully, the report finds little support among a majority of academics for actually dismissing colleagues who hold different views. For every one academic who supports this action there are around eight who oppose it. Two-thirds of academics also oppose the use of “open letters” to try and shut down debate. So, we need to keep the scale of the problem in perspective and acknowledge that many would oppose, for example, how I have been treated, even if they would not say so publicly.
But, at the same time, we also know from research that a highly vocal and active minority can have an effect on the wider climate that is wholly disproportionate to their actual number. They can set the “rules of the game” and when a majority of moderates feel unable to speak out this can produce far more serious problems. When what is supposed to be a vibrant and healthy marketplace of ideas starts to descend into the opposite the risks are clear. Research debates can be ‘prematurely closed’ because academics become unable or unwilling to ask questions that might “rock the boat”.
Public trust in universities and higher education more generally can be eroded and become polarised, as we are currently witnessing in the United States. And the development of our students, who need to be exposed to genuine ideological diversity if they are to become the well-rounded, critical thinkers that our divided societies desperately need, is harmed. As Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff point out in their book The Coddling of the American Mind, universities should offer the best environments on earth “in which to come face-to-face with people and ideas that are potentially offensive or even downright hostile”. They should be “the ultimate mental gymnasium”. Many, at least according to this report, are failing to be so.
Britain is not yet as polarised as America. Our universities remain one of our greatest assets, and most of the people who work in them undertake an incredibly important role and make valuable contributions to wider society. But this is also why we do need to think seriously about how to address some of these warning signs now, and defending academic freedom is one way to do just that.
At the recent General Election, the Conservatives became one of the first parties to include a commitment to protecting academic freedom in its manifesto. The charge that Boris Johnson leads a “populist” or “post-truth” government sits uneasily alongside the fact that his government is one of the first to commit to protecting viewpoint diversity, in all of its forms, within our universities. This is the very opposite of the ugly Orbánism that we have seen taken hold elsewhere. And, in my view at least, if we are serious about keeping our universities among our greatest assets then it is on all of us to support it — whatever our personal politics may be.