Arif Ahmed can help students rediscover the core values of higher education
In recent years, universities across this country have become synonymous with the idea of ‘woke’. In fact, a league table released this week claimed that over half of British universities peddle a ‘woke’ agenda to students, and that the worst offenders are the institutions considered our most esteemed. In an environment of ideological conformity, the promotion of free speech is increasingly treated as the preserve of the far-Right.
The recent announcement of a ‘free speech tsar’ (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms) for universities by Rishi Sunak has been interpreted as a provocation amid an already rampaging culture war. The move has angered many Left-leaning and liberal students, who believe that it is a Trojan Horse for Right-wingers.
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But it is worth looking more closely at the role itself to see if these fears are justified. The notion of a free speech tsar has been floated since the original reading of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill in 2021, and the role is expected to go to the Cambridge academic Arif Ahmed. According to the plans, the remit will include powers to ensure academics and visiting university speakers are not “cancelled” or censored for controversial views, particularly those which go against the social justice orthodoxies of their undergraduate audience. This is hardly radical — and it is something that we should welcome.
I am currently a student at Oxford. I would describe myself as Left-wing. I served as president of the Student Union and have been involved with activist groups, trade union efforts and lobby campaigns. Yet I strongly believe that preserving free speech as the lifeblood of a university is a value that should be accepted universally, irrespective of political affiliation.
In my three years at university, I have witnessed numerous speakers have their invitations rescinded, all while societies and students scrabble to release statements and sign petitions to have their platform removed.
For instance, former home secretary Amber Rudd was notably de-platformed by UN Women Oxford in 2020 for her perceived role in the Windrush scandal. That same year, historian Selina Todd was disinvited from a conference at Exeter College on the basis of her gender-critical views. In 2022, it was reported that in the previous year almost 200 speaker requests were rejected by UK universities and colleges, more than double the figure for the previous academic cycle. Even Left-wing public figures have been subject to attempted silencing by students.
This isn’t an exclusively Leftist problem, then. But there is no doubt that my side of the aisle has badly lost its way on freedom of speech, something that used to be a sacred principle, giving a voice to the voiceless and challenging the status quo.
Of course, no one has a right to speak anywhere they please — being invited to a university is a privilege, as is serving as a professor or researcher. But nor should universities pander to this pervasive culture of fear. An appointee, be it Ahmed or somebody else, to oversee breaches of official free speech policy would help us return to the first principles of higher education.
What’s more, most high-profile speakers already have large platforms online, so preventing them from appearing at a university is unlikely to achieve its intended outcome. Gone are the days when universities had a monopoly on contemporary discourse. The real losers in this scenario would be the students, who would miss out on a campus discussion likely to stimulate and provoke. Fostering a culture which protects free speech must be a priority in modern Britain. Bring on the tsar, I say.