Last week Boris Johnson's younger brother Jo was appointed universities and science minister, recapturing the brief he held from 2015 to 2018. His appointment raised some eyebrows, mainly because only eight months ago he resigned from May’s government so he could back a second referendum, and issued a stark warning about the ‘untold damage’ that no deal would inflict on the country. Boris’s elevation to Number 10 seems to have resulted in his change of heart.
But while Brexit is likely to take up a significant amount of the new universities minister's time, Jo faces an equally important struggle to restore universities to their intended function as bastions of free speech. A creeping culture of intolerance, ‘no-platforming’, ‘safe spaces’ and disruptive protesting at universities has even led figures such as Sir Roger Scruton to suggest that they should all be scrapped.
While the Joint Committee on Human Rights didn’t go quite as far as Scruton in their 2018 report to Parliament on the issue, they made clear that there were a number of unacceptable barriers to free speech on campus which needed to be addressed. Sam Gyimah, the former universities minister, responded by holding a free speech summit in which he called on higher education organisations to stamp out the ‘institutional hostility’ to ‘unfashionable’ views which had led to a palpable chilling effect on free speech.
But since Gyimah’s welcome intervention, precious little has been done by the government to positively address the issue. Indeed since the summit was held, no less than four universities have been forced into embarrassing U-turns for refusing to affiliate pro-life societies after the threat of legal action. In the most recent case, the University of Nottingham admitted that an ‘intolerable legal or financial risk’ obliged trustees of the Students’ Union to override a decision made by the society presidents, which said that the views of ‘Nottingham Students for Life’ were not welcome on campus.
The Students’ Representative Council (SRC) at Glasgow University also tried to block the affiliation of a pro-life group in similar circumstances, and an opinion piece in the student newspaper following the reversal of the decision was a revealing glimpse into the intolerant mindset that Jo Johnson is up against:
“‘The SRC stuck to their guns, but following legal consultation were delivered the crushing blow that anti-choice beliefs are actually a protected characteristic under the Equality Act. In other words, their hands were tied, and they had no choice but to affiliate.
Let’s think about that: anti-abortion sentiment is entitled to the same legal backing as sexual orientation, race, disability, and other aspects of identity that are often marginalised in society. It’s, in a word, ludicrous.’
This represents the crux of the matter for Johnson – for the most part the law does in fact protect freedom of speech on campus, but there is a worrying trend of student bodies being allergic to diversity of thought. We can talk about pluralism and tolerance until the cows come home, but if we aren’t prepared to accept that others do (and are entitled to) disagree with us on important issues, a propensity to sideline or censor differing views will naturally follow.
Dr Seth Anziska, who lectures on Jewish-Muslim relations at UCL, noted at a recent event on faith and belief on campus that a university education was not intended to be a ‘Kum Ba Yah’ experience where everyone harmoniously agrees. Rather, it should teach you how to be uncomfortable by exposing you to different ways of thinking and challenging your perspectives. His point was that if students couldn’t just sit and be uncomfortable during a difficult conversation, university had failed them.
Ultimately, university culture flows into society at large. If we can’t get to grips with disagreeing well in these supposed crucibles of critical thinking, how does wider society deal with divisive issues such as Brexit, the environment, immigration, religion and abortion without it all descending into a shrill screaming match? If there is any hope of holding together a diverse and democratic society, Jo Johnson will need to ensure university campus culture is steered away from a ‘you can’t say that’ mentality and towards an environment that actively encourages the free and frank exchange of ideas.
Laurence Wilkinson is Legal Counsel at ADF International.