Free speech: whose problem is it really?

At a time when the Universities Minister, Sam Gyimah, is renewing his free speech crusade – popping up at The EconomistOpen Future Festival’ last weekend – there are indeed some glaring examples of problems. No-platforming, closing down of informed debate: it’s all there, just – well – not on university campuses in the United Kingdom.

Take, for example, the treatment of the ‘Best for Britain’ campaign by the Conservative Party. Best for Britain is a peaceful and law-abiding group gaining widespread support in its campaign for a people’s vote on the Brexit deal, and had been planning to hold fringe events at the Conservative conference in Birmingham later this month. But applications by three group members for passes allowing them to enter the conference venue were last week refused. They were no-platformed.

Or take a report of the response at the highest levels to one of the most careful academic studies so far on the question of the likely effect of Brexit on national food supplies. According to Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, his research group’s report did indeed attract the attention of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, as one might well expect. But their meeting did not go well: “I told [Michael Gove] he was driving the country into a food security crisis. He looked incredulous.” And so, at a time when Professor Lang’s expertise is more valuable than at any other point in decades, I’m not getting the impression that he is being invited to present his analysis to other members of the government.

And then there’s the case of Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary. He’s no proponent of free speech; indeed he has restricted the media and judiciary, and manipulated the democratic system to the advantage of his party. His repression has also been felt within universities: for instance, his government is proposing to ban gender studies courses, while the Central European University has declared it may have to leave the country entirely because Orban is refusing to legalise its status. Last week two-thirds of the members of the European Parliament supported a motion to censure Orban’s government. But where did Gyimah’s party – those proud defenders of free speech – stand on this matter? That’s right, they whipped their MEPs to vote against the motion.

Maybe one could argue that there is not much wrong with any of this. The Tories surely have the right to decide who they want to hear at a conference, just as a government minister must by necessity sift competing voices on any issue. And maybe, after all, 95 per cent of the nation’s economists really are wrong, and their rational rebuttals of Patrick Minford and the Economists for Free Trade may justly be set aside. Maybe. Or maybe the ‘robust debate of contentious issues – to reach the truth’, something Gyimah sees as ‘core to university life’, is somewhat absent at present from political circles.

And maybe one could also argue – perhaps with rather more cause – that student unions have the right to decide how debates will be staged on their premises. For the evidence that critics raise on this issue tends to reduce to a handful of well-publicized cases, usually centred on students’ unions rather than universities, that regardless collapse under any degree of scrutiny. Arguably, then, much of the fabricated outrage over alleged censorship on campus boils down to resentment that someone or other was not invited to speak somewhere or other. Surely students should not be left to make these decisions themselves, especially when the Conservative Party is evidently so much more reliable in its ethical judgements.

A generous reading of Gyimah’s attack is that it’s merely a diversionary tactic. It doesn’t pay for Conservative universities ministers to look as though they are too close to universities, so it’s helpful in political terms to pick a fight or two. And a cultural matter like free speech plays well with the rightish edges of the party while making little practical difference to the way in which universities operate. It’s worth noting, in his defence, that Gyimah has not – yet – hit the revenues of universities; indeed on research spending there is a positive story to tell, while his recent endorsement of universities’ core mission was widely welcomed.

But I’m no longer prepared to take that generous reading. I’m sick of the slipshod approach to evidence in these attacks on universities, and I’m tired of being told that students and academics have insufficient respect for divergent viewpoints – that we’re not much fussed with the truth. How about, just for once, setting aside the easy, damaging rhetoric and looking at the hard, complicated facts of speech on campus? In other words, how about setting an example of intellectual honesty for other members of this historically slippery, self-absorbed government?

Moreover, whatever their motivations, Gyimah’s largely unfounded attacks on universities are working to deflect attention from far more serious problems at the heart of his own government. He is at present complicit in a project to close down debate and suppress uncomfortable evidence, and the nation stands to suffer as a result. He would therefore do well to direct his gaze to his own workplace, and turn his supposed passion for reason and transparency upon the debased way in which Brexit is being discussed. Universities are not the problem here.

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Widening participation and the demise of the great British university*

Let’s think, for a minute, about why British universities might be slipping down the international league tables. The figures are fairly clear: 51 of the UK’s top 76 universities, including sixteen from the Russell Group, have dropped in the latest QS rankings.

The Telegraph had a go at this exercise this morning, and concluded that ‘experts [blame] the decline on pressure to admit more disadvantaged students’. In response, I’d start with the word ‘experts’. It seems to me they had just one, from the University of Buckingham (and I’m not even sure that he would be comfortable with the way his words have been used). Their other interviewees seemed to be pulling in different directions; but, hey, why miss an opportunity for a spot of reactionary elitism on the day of a general election?

What this extraordinary explanation for the fall of Britain is doing, after all, is blaming a programme of social mobility – the longstanding commitment to widening participation in higher education – for a decline in quality. Or, in a not wholly subliminal way, it’s suggesting that our top universities could be great again if only they didn’t have to admit so many of the wrong kind of persons. Those poor people from underfunded schools: they really pull us all down.

Another way of analysing these results might have been to start with the QS methodology. It encompasses six metrics:

  1. Academic Reputation
  2. Employer Reputation
  3. Faculty/Student Ratio
  4. Citations per faculty
  5. International Faculty Ratio
  6. International Student Ratio

As hard as I look, I don’t see anything here about the average net worth of the parents of a university’s students. Funny that; if we could only take ourselves back a few generations, it was all so much more straightforward.

So where else might we look for explanations? First of all, we might consider the level of international competition. There are countries around the world, not least in Asia, that have methodically and ruthlessly targeted success in the international league tables. They have increased investment across the board, and also concentrated resources on identified elite groups of universities. They’re not relying on reputations rooted in the past; they’re aggressively building those reputations right now.

Secondly, let’s pause on the final two measures, which are all about international outlook. For all our ‘we are international’ hash-tags, British universities are hamstrung by a government that is and insular in its outlook and hostile – at least in its rhetoric – towards international students. Other countries are increasing their numbers of international students while we are going backwards on this measure. Our participation in EU research funding schemes, which have been the single greatest engine of international collaboration, is in serious doubt.

Which leads us to Brexit. After an election campaign in which both major parties have made promises about this and that while determinedly ignoring the fact that Brexit will rip a bloody great hole in the nation, it seems appropriate that we should be looking every which way other than Brexit for an explanation for these league table trends. Because it couldn’t have anything to do with Brexit, could it? It surely couldn’t – or not, anyway, for The Telegraph – be influenced in any way by this historical act of insularity and xenophobia?

No: there must be someone else to blame. It must be caused by our dreadfully misguided efforts to drag forward all these frightfully uneducated oiks. Britain was an altogether greater nation when those folk knew their place, and when the higher education system was designed to damn well keep them there.

* Published under a different title by wonkhe.com

Making the evidence disappear: how the referendum was won

Here’s one of the most telling quotes from the post-referendum period: ‘The remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work.’ That’s Arron Banks, who did so much to fund the Leave campaign.

And here’s another quote, from before the vote: ‘We just want the facts’. That’s one I heard, over and over, from ordinary voters interviewed on radio and television.

Hence my question: if people wanted facts, and only one side had them, why didn’t that side win?

 

Evidence & argument

‘Evidence’ is a more appropriate word than ‘facts’. Evidence is the very stuff of successful argument. How many Leave arguments, though, began with the words ‘I believe’? Hell, anyone can believe all sorts of bollocks, but without evidence a belief is no argument at all. This is something we fix in first-year undergraduate essays.

Of course it was worse than this. We had, as well, Michael Gove’s claim that ‘Britain has had enough of experts’. I’ve heard it said that Gove surely does believe in expert opinion himself; but that’s beside the point. What he set out to do was legitimize not merely anti-intellectualism, but a form of debate wilfully devoid of evidence. And that has troubling consequences for the nature of democracy.

 

A post-truth media

The media, meanwhile, were caught short by Britain’s first full-scale encounter with ‘post-truth’ politics. We know what to expect from Leave newspapers, but the BBC – upon which we rely so much – had a bad referendum. In their obsession with balance, they repeatedly allowed leavers air-time to peddle their ‘beliefs’, even as the public were crying out for ‘facts’.

One morning, the lead item on the ‘Today’ programme was Boris Johnson offering one of his more outlandish beliefs. The headline began with the phrase ‘Boris Johnson warns’. By lunchtime, the BBC’s ‘fact-checker’ made clear that this belief was wholly fictional. But the damage had been done; lies – and note that verb ‘warns’, as though this might actually be fact rather than fiction – were allowed to seep into the public consciousness.

This is to treat news by the rules of talkback radio, which operates by presenting a balance of – generally extreme and unsubstantiated – views. But might we dare to expect more of serious journalists than this? Might we expect them to inform us accurately? Who in the media told us – as legal expert Michael Dougan did – of the multi-volume UK-government-sponsored Balance of Competences Review, that found overwhelming evidence in favour of EU membership? Dougan got millions of hits on YouTube, but neither he nor those precious volumes of evidence got much attention from the mainstream media.

And it’s still happening. Last week the ‘Today’ programme had what seemed initially an eminently sensible piece on the grave threats to research funding presented by Brexit. But then, in the interest of balance, they dug out one of the few scientists in the country who believes that the situation might actually be positive. If 99% of experts – and yes, I happen to believe in experts – argue one thing, why would we give 50% of the air-time to the 1%. That’s not balance; it’s journalists abandoning their responsibility to inform the public.

Britain’s two seventeenth-century revolutions produced not only the nation’s first newspapers but some of the greatest political theory of all time. So it’s possible to do better, but we’ve got a way to catch up.

 

The place of passion

Here’s another BBC quote, from the day before the referendum. The vote was, the ‘World at One’ journalist said, a contest between ‘the head and the heart’.

The lesser mischief of this quote is its implication that there was no emotion to the remain side of the argument. The greater is the suggestion that, in a decision of such magnitude, the ‘head’ and the ‘heart’ are somehow of equivalent value. Sorry to sound, well, emotional, but that’s bullshit. Having a warm feeling about freedom and sovereignty counts for bugger all, in my book, against the near-certainty of a shrinking economy, more austerity and a fracturing Union.

Since the referendum we’ve seen where a validation of emotion, devoid of evidence, can lead us. Brexit may have no effect on immigration whatsoever, but hasn’t it done a great job at legitimizing the fear and hatred of migrants? It wouldn’t have suited the leave campaign to have an evidence-based debate about immigration, because the weight of evidence is against them. And so now, having got by just fine without evidence, they’re unable to change their narrative in order to put a stop to the epidemic of racism they themselves have unkennelled.

 

Getting on with it

The post-referendum Leave line is that we all need to ‘get on with it’ – as though those of us who are deeply concerned about the risks ahead are no more than sore losers in a bloody game of Monopoly. We’re not; we’re focused intently on making the best of the present, and that’s a responsible attitude for any citizen in a democracy. Now, more than ever, we sorely require a commitment to evidence-based argument.

The initial signs are not good: while senior EU officials and hugely credible British experts have been lining up to give us very clear information, potential prime ministers have been resorting as much as ever to assertions of belief that border upon fantasy. And have a guess which story makes the front-pages? Political drama is easy news.

Meanwhile, many Leave voters would prefer simply to close the nation’s ears. One wrote to the BBC, days after the vote, urging them to be ‘more positive’. I mean, where’s Pravda when you need it?

 

So Remain lost the vote because evidence-based argument lost the campaign. And that happened because the media weren’t ready for post-truth politics. Looking ahead, it seems to me that finding a way to retrieve the value of evidence in national debate is maybe even more important even than finding a way back into the EU.