For a long time, the UK’s silent majority has been quite clearly concerned about “cancel culture” – which describes when people are demonised or sacked for having “the wrong views”. This concern partly explains why Labour suffered such a big defeat at last year’s election. The result was not only down to its confused stance on Brexit, or Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, but the party’s woke worldview.
Unfortunately, cancel culture since seems to have accelerated, particularly during lockdown, when the nation watched statues toppled, innocuous TV shows like The Mighty Boosh removed for being “offensive” and an author even fired from her agency for Tweeting support for JK Rowling.
There have been growing calls for the Government to intervene before it gets too late; something which it’s not always easy to do, but last week Gavin Williamson announced a policy that could make a sizeable difference.
Titled the Higher Education Restructuring Regime, it essentially incentivises English universities – many of which are struggling as a result of the Coronavirus crisis – to tackle censorship on campus in order to receive a Government bailout.
Williamson’s restructuring regime is broadly focussed on three areas. First, it asks universities to reduce administrative costs, including vice-chancellor pay, to focus resources “on the front line”. Second, it asks them to cut courses that lead to poor employment outcomes – with the Education Secretary wanting to strive for “great value for money” as part of his commitment to levelling up Britain. And third, it requires institutions to “demonstrate their commitment to academic freedom and free speech”.
An independently-chaired Higher Education Restructuring Regime Board will be established, and Williamson will draw on its expertise to assess which universities should receive bailouts, by way of repayable loans.
Jo Grady, General Secretary of the University and College Union, has strongly criticised the move, suggesting that the Government is exploiting Covid-19 to “impose evidence-free ideology”, and there have been similar objections. But one suspects that this will be an incredibly popular policy with taxpayers, for a number of reasons.
For starters, it has been said repeatedly that there are now too many young people going to universities, due to Tony Blair’s target for 50 per cent attendance (the figure hit 50.2 per cent in 2017-2018). Williamson has said he will stand up for the “forgotten 50 per cent”, paying more attention to skills training, and other parts of the further education sector.
This is great news; the UK needs qualifications and training to be better tailored to the economy, and there’s increasing evidence many undergraduate degrees aren’t providing a return on investment. As Neil O’Brien has written for ConservativeHome, “poor-value degree courses… waste taxpayers’ money, but don’t actually increase opportunities for students.”
Then there’s the universities’ free speech issue. Censoriousness has become so prevalent that Amber Rudd was “no-platformed” at the University of Oxford in March. There are numerous examples of universities banning speakers, as well as political hostility to those who hold Conservative/ Brexiteer views. Last year I wrote for The Telegraph about the amount of insults young people had been subjected to on campus because of these.
Williamson’s intervention is clever because it doesn’t tell universities how to combat this problem, and they have the option to do nothing; it simply motivates them to promote free speech. One way they could do this is by adopting the Chicago Principles, which are widely recognised in the Government and elsewhere, as best practice in this regard.
These were developed in 2014 following a series of incidents at different universities in which students tried to ban speakers deemed controversial. Academics at the University of Chicago drafted a statement that made an “overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the University’s community.”
Another way universities might tackle this is by trying to improving safety measures for speakers – so that they cannot be no-platformed, or maybe even interviewing students on their attitudes to free speech before offering them a place. There’s lots of ways in which the issue can be approached.
Some will not be surprised about Williamson’s announcement. In February he wrote for The Times that “If universities don’t take action [to promote free speech], the government will.” Strangely enough, it was the Coronavirus crisis that allowed him to stick to his word. Let’s hope that his policy gives other ministers some ideas for how to fight cancel culture too.