I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise this important issue, which I have already raised briefly in oral Education questions with the Minister whom I am pleased to see will respond to this debate. It is my contention that there are more and more attacks on and, in addition, threats to academic freedom in our universities, including the freedom to research topics of one’s choice, the freedom to lecture and give academic treatises on subjects of one’s choosing within one’s academic field, and the freedom of expression in and of itself on university campuses.
We have seen recently the incident at Leeds university, in which an academic’s speech was cancelled by the university. We have seen the personalised attacks on a professor at Oxford university, in my constituency, on the basis of his political views, and the calls for his tenure to be somehow affected by them. We read in The Times Higher Education Supplement that some tax-funded institutions of higher education that one would think were subject to the rules about academic freedom qualified their provisions on academic freedom by reference to religious ethos. Then there is the question, which I raised with the Minister in oral Education questions, of no-platform policies on university campuses.
What I want from the debate is an acknowledgement by the Minister that he recognises the importance of academic freedom and freedom of expression and that he supports the existing legislation, which was introduced by a previous Government and which I believe was steered through the House in part by previous political opponents of mine, but which has stood the test of time. I want the Minister to say that the Government’s clear position is to respect freedom of expression and academic freedom, and I want him to say whether he will take action to make it absolutely clear that Parliament, the Government and the institutions that govern the way in which universities receive taxpayers’ money—that is why we have a particular interest in this issue—are interested and keen to ensure that there is no restriction on freedom of expression within the law in universities.
I do not argue that freedom of expression should be absolute. Clearly, we have, except in this place, libel laws. We have rules about matters that are sub judice. We have rules about incitement to violence and incitement to criminal offences. I support those rules. We also have rules about incitement to racial hatred even if those involved do not themselves incite criminal offences. So clearly there are limits, but beyond those limits, which I think should be limited and clear, we need to ensure that we protect freedom of expression, especially in the area of religious discourse. In fact, I would argue that it is incumbent on us to challenge religious views, whether that be in academia, in politics or in general speech.
It is also vital that we recognise the importance of academic freedom in the sense of freedom to research and publish without constraint from the funder of the research. I shall not go down that road, but I wanted to acknowledge those issues, and I am grateful to the University and College Union, a trade union, and to Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, for the briefings that they have given me for the debate.
The issues that I want to raise in detail include the campaign against David Coleman of Oxford university in my constituency. That has stemmed from a petition to the university of Oxford, although the university told me that it had not actually received any petitions. The petition is from Oxford Student Action for Refugees—STAR—which is a national organisation with which I have worked closely. It notes:
“David Coleman has been Professor of Demography at the University of Oxford since October 2002.”
It claims that he is also
“a consultant and spokesperson for Migration Watch.”
It says that he
“is a member of the Eugenics Society, now called the Galton Institute”,
and that he
“is acquiring a public image in the ongoing…debate about immigration, and…is using his status as a university professor to legitimise the views and reports produced by Migration Watch.”
The petitioners believe that Migration Watch
“masquerades as an independent non-partisan organisation, but in fact has a strong anti-immigration bias.”
The petition continues:
“Through his many media appearances Professor Coleman is bringing the university into disrepute by associating it with the views of Migration Watch...We the undersigned call on the University to: Ask Professor Coleman to refrain from using his academic title when appearing on behalf of Migration Watch in the media”,
“Consider the suitability of Coleman’s continued tenure as a Professor of the University, in light of his well-known opinions and affiliations relating to immigration and eugenics.”
That would be laughable were it not so outrageous in what it is seeking to do. The organisation has the right to free speech to make those ridiculous claims, but it ill befits members of Oxford university to attack other members of Oxford university and, indeed, their tenure, income and position simply because they disagree with them.
I have spent 20 years in politics as a subscriber to “Searchlight” and campaigning against anti-immigration views and I yield to very few people in the strength with which I have taken issue with some of the claims made by Migration Watch. However, to argue that someone who is a professor cannot describe themselves as a professor when giving their views is preposterous. David Coleman had never claimed, as far as I can tell, to represent the university but in fact spoke on behalf of Migration Watch, and none of his personal views has any direct impact on his ability to do his job in respect of research or teaching. If students object to being taught by him, that is their lookout. It is unacceptable to seek to hound a man, through a boycott or through the sort of criticism and petitioning that I have described, out of academic life.
I am very disappointed at what has happened. My view is that such a petition and such an approach are counter-productive, because they create a victim—David Coleman is a victim in this respect—out of someone who, when it comes to the arguments on immigration, should be debated with or ignored, not given credibility and victim status. However aberrant David Coleman’s views—they are debatable—as long as they are legal and delivered lawfully, he has, in my view, every right to express them without fear of retribution from his employer. As long as he does not claim to speak on behalf of the university, he is at liberty to set out his academic background.
The price of all of us enjoying academic freedom and free expression is that we provide those freedoms to people with whom we disagree. The campaign against Professor Coleman is illiberal and counter-productive. The reference to “eugenics” in the petition, based on the history of the Galton institute, is plain silly. We cannot stop debate about genetics and population just because someone says, “Ooh, boo hiss, eugenics.” It is an ill-founded campaign and I hope that it has no further impact.
Something that clearly has had an impact is what happened at Leeds recently. A talk by Matthias Kuentzel at Leeds university was cancelled by the university at short notice. The university claims that that was not done on the basis of complaints from, perhaps, Muslim students or other members of the university or the wider Leeds population about Matthias Kuentzel’s talk, which was initially titled “Hitler’s Legacy: Islamic Anti-Semitism in the Middle East”, but was changed to “The Nazi Legacy: the export of anti-Semitism to the Middle East”. The university claims that it did not cancel the meeting due to complaints. Again, that would be censorship. It is peculiar, though, that I am told through the Community Security Trust that the academics called to a meeting with the university were told that there were complaints and that was why they had been called to the meeting, but the university later claimed that the talk was cancelled for administrative reasons because of a lack of notice, even though posters had been up.
We have a choice. One scenario is that there were complaints that the talk was offensive, in which case it is not for the university to censor the speech as long as it is lawful. Indeed, some of the most important dialogues relating to religion, particularly extremist religion, are bound to be offensive. People on both sides of the matter who are propagating their strongly felt beliefs are easily offended, it seems to me. That does not mean that we should be restricted in what we say.
The alternative is that there were threats to people’s safety. If there were, it is the job of the university authorities and the police in a free society to provide safety and to police events, rather than censor them. If they do censor events, there is a good chance, whenever anyone makes a threat, that meetings will be cancelled on safety grounds or because the risk assessment is not up to date. That just feeds the idea that events and speeches will be cancelled if threats are made, and a stand must be taken on that. I thought that we had a police force to protect our liberties, not to make concessions on the spurious basis of administrative grounds. It is extremely unfortunate that they have done so, because more complaints and threats may well be made, which would add to the problem.
A further example of the increasing trend towards attacking academic freedom was highlighted last week in The Times Higher Educational Supplement. The paper has been running a series of articles exploring threats to academic freedom, and I commend it on doing so. The article mentions Canterbury Christ Church university’s article of governance, which refers to academics’ “freedom to question”—that wording is taken from section 202 of the Education Reform Act 1988 which states that academics
“have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward…unpopular or controversial opinions”
without fear of sanction. According to the newspaper, the university’s article of governance says:
“academics’ freedom to question received wisdom is subject to a qualification: that they do not undermine the institution’s ethos as a Church of England college or its code of conduct.”
Apparently, the university of Chester
“also asks its academic staff not to undermine the institution’s ethos and social values based on that ethos.”
One either has academic freedom and the ability to question received wisdom in one’s academic work or one does not—it is not a question of saying, “Yes, there is academic freedom, mainly.” The bodies that I mentioned receive funding organised by the Minister through the Higher Education Funding Council, and I should be interested to hear whether he thinks that such restrictions on academic freedom are acceptable.
I turn now to no-platform policies. It is worrying that such policies have been allowed to proliferate through student unions and the National Union of Students and that, until I recently raised the issue with the Minister, the Government had made no comment as to the fact that they are unlawful. It is interesting that the report by the all-party group on anti-Semitism, which contained several otherwise very good recommendations and comments and which a large number of hon. Members published in November 2006, stated without criticism:
“Individual student unions are responsible for passing No Platform policies. A student from University College London…submitted that the university has not done this and it has resulted in an inability to deal with extremist elements on campus.”
I put it to the Minister that extremist elements on campus who break the law need to be dealt with by the police, not by self-appointed kangaroo courts and no-platform policies that determine, by means of prior restraint, what is unlawful.
The report goes on to say that the student referred to in the report commented in 2005 that
“spokespeople for Hizb ut-Tahrir were invited to the campus to give presentations. Although UCL has an equal opportunities policy, without a No Platform policy the University was unable to prevent them from speaking.”
The report made no mention of whether that was appropriate. However, such provisions are not lawful. If the Government, having looked into the matter, have decided that Hizb ut-Tahrir is not outside the law, it is not for individual universities to ban its speeches.
Paragraph 199 of the report goes on to say:
“Although they are banned from most campuses under the NUS No Platform policy, Hizb ut-Tahrir have reappeared under a number of aliases.”
The group is not banned from universities under the NUS no-platform policy—an unlawful attempt may have been made to seek to ban it under that policy. I am disappointed that the report’s authors did not make that clear.
The Minister will be aware that section 43 of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 states that higher education institutions must take reasonable steps
“to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students…employees”
and visiting speakers. That duty includes taking reasonable steps to ensure that the use of the institution’s premises is not denied to an individual or group on the grounds of the views or beliefs of the individual or group or the policy or objectives of the group. That requirement should also apply to the Government, who should tell student unions that it is inappropriate to have no-platform policies because they would be unlawful if they were successful. Universities should also make that clear.
If we do not make the position clear now, there will be increasing extremism on both sides of the argument. In that respect, I have had supportive representations from both the Council for Arab-British Understanding and Jewish organisations about the need to secure freedom of speech on the one hand and to avoid a boycott of Jewish academics on the other. That boycott was also discussed by the parliamentary report on anti-Semitism, but this time it argued against censorship and boycotts, which was inconsistent. With increasing extremism on both sides, however, we are in danger of stifling debate, and it is far better that we have lawful debate than a restriction on freedom of speech. I urge the Minister to send a signal today that he will do something to secure academic freedom, which I hope he and the Government also believe in.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on raising these important and timely issues, which I know from discussions on the Floor of the House he takes extremely seriously.
Let me start by making it abundantly clear that the Government believe in the concept of academic freedom. We certainly support previous legislation on academic freedom on campus, and we respect freedom of speech and academic freedom within the law. As I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware, higher education institutions are autonomous, and university autonomy is one of the key features that has made UK higher education such a success. The autonomy of our institutions is one of our greatest strengths, and I welcome diversity in the sector, be it in the student and staff population or the range of provision on offer. I would not seek directly to intervene in the individual governance arrangements, ethos or mission statements of higher education institutions, which are rightly responsible for determining their own academic and administrative affairs.
I am therefore limited in what I can say in detail about the specific cases that the hon. Gentleman has raised. He has mentioned the case of Professor Coleman at Oxford, which can be said to highlight the fact that academic freedom is a matter of constant debate and concern in the higher education world. However, I am sure that he understands that it would be inappropriate for me to discuss individual cases relating to specific higher education employees, particularly when I am not familiar with all the background and circumstances.
From reading and informing myself about these cases, however, I am aware that Professor Coleman’s university, as his employer, has acted in accordance with its own policies and procedures on academic freedom and staff behaviour, and that it has backed the academic in question. From the evidence that I have seen, that is in accordance with the institution’s governance arrangements. In those circumstances, its actions were absolutely right.
On the Leeds case, the decision was taken in accordance with the institution’s governance arrangements. Without being privy to the individual factors concerned, it is difficult to say more, but if the hon. Gentleman raises specific concerns with the vice-chancellor, I am sure that there will be a response.
I also note the hon. Gentleman’s reference to the governance documents of two institutions.
In general, does the Minister recognise my point that if threats to public order arise from an otherwise lawful academic treatise, it is the job of the authorities and the police to allow an event to go ahead safely, rather than to take the easy way out and call for the event to be cancelled? Otherwise, we will have more cancellations, rather than more protected free speech.
That is an important point. I shall not comment on what happened at Leeds, because I am not aware of the detail, but, in general, if someone is advocating a lawful view, the university authorities have a responsibility to do whatever is possible to facilitate the discussion or meeting. There is one important caveat: university authorities must be responsible for the safety and security of people within their environments. That might be one countervailing factor, but as a general principle, I agree with the broad thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks.
The hon. Gentleman has referred to the governance arrangements of two institutions, Canterbury Christ Church university and the university of Chester, where it has been asserted that academic freedom is qualified with the expectation that staff and students respect the ethos of those institutions and adopt a code of conduct based on that ethos. I am aware of his concerns about those institutions’ articles of governance. Those documents must, rightly, be read and applied within the context of the overarching legal framework. I hope to make it clear in the short time available to me that academic freedom is clearly enshrined in law and that that overarching legal framework upholds freedom of speech.
I am sure that we all agree that higher education, by its very nature, is concerned with free debate, challenging established principles and pushing the boundaries of conventional thought. Higher education institutions have always been places where people come together from different backgrounds to explore ideas and exchange experiences. I think that the freedom to engage in robust but civilised argument and the willingness of people to have their ideas challenged and changed are at the heart of the educational experience.
I believe that it is vital to both our economy and society that higher education continues to be at the forefront of intellectual inquiry and discovery. It helps us to progress as a forward-thinking and outward-looking nation and as individuals. Academic freedom is a fundamental principle of our higher education system. It goes wider than freedom of speech, because it includes freedom to pursue research and to publish—actions that play a significant part in academic endeavour.
Academic staff must have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to voice controversial and sometimes unpopular opinions without placing themselves in jeopardy. That protection is articulated in higher education institutions’ instruments of governance, post-92 staff contracts and key pieces of legislation. The definition of academic freedom setting out this principle is included—rightly, in my view—in the model instruments of governance for both pre-92 and post-92 higher education institutions, and it was initially set out in the Education Reform Act 1988 in relation to pre-92 institutions. It is the Government’s expectation that all institutions should include a provision protecting academic freedom in their governance documents.
Section 43 of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 requires governing bodies of higher education institutions to
“take such steps as are reasonably practicable”
to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the institution and for visiting speakers. The duty requires institutions to have a code of practice setting out the procedures to be followed in connection with the organisation of meetings and other activities that take place on their premises, and to take steps to ensure that the code is complied with. Higher education institutions are protected from Government interference in academic matters under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992.
It is therefore clear that a definite framework for supporting academic freedom exists within our universities. I am a firm believer in the principle of academic freedom. However, it is important to say, as the hon. Gentleman has acknowledged, that that is not an absolute. Indeed, section 43 of the 1986 Act states that academic freedom within the law is what is important. The freedom to speak openly must be balanced with the rights of others and the need to take responsibility for one’s words and, indeed, their consequences, such as actions to which they might lead.
That does not override the bar on incitement to racial hatred or unlawful discrimination on the basis of race, religious belief, or sexual orientation. Governments have, of course, made it clear in domestic legislation that it is unacceptable to discriminate against people on those grounds. Article 10 of the European convention on human rights also makes it clear that freedom of expression may be qualified by the need for the protection of the rights of others. The higher education sector’s own guidance on intolerance and hate crimes is helping institutions to deal with those issues.
I shall briefly say a few words about the relevant guidance that my Department issued some months ago for tackling violent extremism in the name of Islam. Freedom of expression is a cornerstone of our democracy. A valued aspect of the right to freedom of expression in the UK is that individuals have the right to criticise, disagree with and campaign against the Government on any issue of foreign or domestic policy. It can be entirely legitimate to hold a view that is radical or extreme on the political spectrum. However, it becomes unacceptable when individuals develop extremist views that lead them to espouse, advocate or even undertake or facilitate violent acts that deliberately undermine good campus and community relations, using their extremist viewpoint as a justification for their actions. Our guidance targeted that dividing line.
The hon. Gentleman also raised some important points about so-called no-platform policies, which have been pursued from time to time by student unions. It is true that a blanket no-platform policy is not consistent with the principles in the 1986 Act, which support freedom of speech on campus within the law, and it is right and important that we uphold those principles. Nevertheless, reasons relating to security or supporting equality might mean that a university, on a case-by-case basis, could act to ensure that a platform is not offered to certain groups or individuals through the use of its premises of resources. We have to be clear, however, that those judgments must be made in the context of the overall legal framework and the circumstances of the event and that they must be taken on a case-by-case basis. For example, we could not condone a university hosting a proscribed organisation.
The key point, however—I hope that this will reassure the hon. Gentleman—is that it is for the university authority, through the office of the vice-chancellor and the governance arrangements, to make that decision, not student unions. Universities should consider the nature of speeches or groups and the risk of an offence being committed under the Terrorism Act 2000 or other legal provisions, and make decisions on such matters.
The Minister has referred to equality, but I am not sure what he means. Is he saying that a university could ban in advance someone from coming to speak for fear that they might say something that does not respect equality, even though it is not unlawful and does not risk breaching the law with regard to terrorism? Is he saying that universities have the right—in individual cases where they are confident—to ban in advance lawful speech, because it is offensive in some way?
No; that is emphatically not what I am saying. I am saying that there is a clear legal framework within which a university must operate to ensure that speakers do not advocate breaches of the law. They must make judgments—rightly so—about the security of a speech or event taking account of local circumstances. However, as a general principle, if someone is advocating a view that is legal and that they have the right to advocate, in my view the university authority should do everything that it possibly can to secure the ability of that view to be put forward. It is difficult to strike a balance between freedom of expression and protecting people against hatred or incitement to violence. Many of the pressing debates on higher education involve those arguments about freedom of speech and the freedom to offend.
The hon. Gentleman has referred to academic boycotts. The Government have consistently made their view clear: we are against the principle of academic boycotts and have stated directly, for example, that we are firmly against any academic boycotts of Israel or Israeli academics. The complex issues surrounding Israel and the Palestinians must be subject to open discussion and debate, and it does not benefit anyone to target academics.
We need a reasonable approach to academic freedom within the context of a civilised pluralist society. A balance must to be struck between an individual’s right to freedom of expression, the rights of others and the protection of our civil society. However, I agree that we need to be constantly vigilant in ensuring that academic freedom is protected. A free exchange of ideas is the bedrock of academic engagement and has consistently proved beneficial to moving our society forwards. Those are important issues, and I rightly congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. It is important that we continue to uphold the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom within the context of the overall legal framework.