by Mary Harrington
Friday, 7
February 2020
Debate
16:56

As long as universities are businesses, forget about free speech

Credit : Wiktor Szymanowicz / Getty Images

Eric Kaufman is right that the government will have a fight on their hands if they are planning to take on the universities on free speech.

Students’ expectation that they are entitled to control their academic environment follows logically from their redefinition, not as students but consumers. If students are not supplicants at the fount of knowledge but paying customers, then naturally the customer is always right. And the customer is entitled to demand a safe, welcoming, home-like environment in which his or her opinions are not unduly challenged.

It will be interesting to see whether Gavin Williamson’s sabre-rattling extends beyond culture war issues such as trans rights or political correctness toward defending free speech in areas sensitive to other groups of paying customers — notably those from autocratic regimes elsewhere in the world. A 2019 Foreign Affairs Committee report on the influence of autocracies in British universities noted in particular that “China’s internationalising trend in higher education has been accompanied by domestic attempts to curb the influence of educational norms and values associated with the West.”

Examples of such activity included Chinese students at London universities attempting to undermine protests in support of pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong, or intervention from the Chinese embassy to no-platform a speaker already invited by a Russell Group university.

Culture war no-platforming in the academy attracts reliable volumes of column inches from the usual voices reiterating the usual positions. But political no-platforming at the behest of Russia or China seems to attract far less attention. Both are enabled by the reality that in our marketised higher education system universities have little choice but to keep their paying customers happy. As Chinese student numbers in British universities surge by a third to reach record highs, legislation to protect academic freedom of speech may be challenged by more than the militant forces of political correctness.

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