Society and Culture

Threats to campus free speech reflect wider problem in society, says new research


In the Media

IEA research referenced by the Daily Express

  •  The current concern over freedom of speech and expression is focused most notably on higher education.

  • The problems result not from a lack of intellectual diversity in individual institutions, but rather from a lack of diversity in the sector as a whole.

  • While there are two competing factions seeking to restrict freedom of expression – populist conservatives and radical leftists – it is the so-called ‘woke’ or ‘social justice’ left that is gaining the most traction in universities.

  • The current system does not encourage the creation of new institutions that challenge these orthodoxies, because the dominant role of government funding in HE disincentivises competition.

  • Further, the central purpose of universities has shifted away from scholarships, research and debate to certifying young people for the job market.

  • The predatory legal culture in the US, where we see free expression stifled for fear of costly lawsuits, also has an enormous influence on restricting freedom of expression.

New research from the Institute of Economic Affairs places freedom of expression on campus within a historical context, underscores that the current problem is the lack of intellectual diversity not within any single university but rather across faculties at a range of institutions, and notes that higher education (HE) is not at the centre of this problem. Rather, it is where a wider problem is manifesting itself most dramatically.

Author Dr Stephen Davies, IEA Head of Education and former Senior Lecturer in the Department of History and Economic History at Manchester Metropolitan University, begins by examining progress made over the past 250 years. As a combination of technological change and active campaigns for free expression, a principle of the right to free speech was established.

But this has never been absolute and unlimited, because that right is always qualified by other ones, such as private property, freedom of association and freedom of contract. Direct measures by governments to impose on universities a duty to provide a platform for speakers are an unwarranted imposition on private bodies.

Grounds for debate: The challenges to free speech in universities argues that the current problems come primarily from the lack of intellectual diversity in the HE sector as a whole, and the lack of diversity between institutions. If the range of views that we find in the press or think tanks existed in HE, then one institution having 90 per cent of its faculty with the same kind of political views would matter vastly less. The real problem is that the ideological orientation of the whole range of institutions is so similar.

The question Davies therefore poses is: why have new, alternative institutions not been set up? First, the overwhelmingly dominant role of government funding in HE disincentivises investors, and possibly faculty, from eschewing the current orthodoxy. Second, HE’s role in the contemporary world has shifted. The good or service provided is no longer scholarship or research or debate but rather the certifying of young people. It’s the signal that will enable them to access higher-paid roles. This creates a high barrier to entry because, without official recognition, creators of new institutions could not fulfil that duty. That failure would be reflected in its ability to attract both students and finance.

This is just one of two wider problems facing free discussion and expression – the other is the predatory and dysfunctional American legal system. Many of the actions against freedom of expression come not from governments but private firms and institutions such as university administrations. The fear of costly lawsuits brought in America ripples out to any firm that trades in the US or has business relations with institutions there.

Perhaps most importantly, Davies reminds us that this topic is constantly in the news not because of an overwhelmingly powerful movement imposing a set of parameters on thought, but rather the opposite. That we have controversy and debate, that there are many people and resources challenging any one position, suggests that no single group will succeed in forcing their chosen limits.

The likely outcome will be a process of ‘pillarisation’, with the consolidation of distinct intellectual and cultural cultures. This might be preferable to outright authoritarian censorship – but, as Davies warns, it would still be costly in terms of reducing the amount of cultural and intellectual innovation that takes place.