Universities across England have launched a response to government attacks on their autonomy, telling ministers they have ‘crossed a line’ in urging them to abandon a program designed to improve equality on campus.
In what could be a turning point in the so-called ‘culture wars’ over free speech, Universities UK (UUK) have clashed with Education Minister Michelle Donelan after she warned them to reconsider membership to a racial equality charter, led by the charity Advance IL.
The program – which counts the majority of Russell Group universities among its members – aims to identify barriers to success for black, Asian and ethnic minority students. But in a letter to vice-chancellors this week, Donelan claimed joining the charter was “in tension” with universities’ duties to uphold free speech.
In its response letter on Thursday, Universities UK said: ‘An important line has been crossed with the letter appearing to direct universities to take a specific approach’ to equalities.
In a later statement, UUK confirmed that it intended to ignore Donelan’s request and remain affiliated with Advance HE.
A UUK spokesperson said: “Universities take their responsibilities to promote and protect freedom of expression very seriously. We have yet to see evidence of how this voluntary, non-prescriptive regime works against that.
“The program is voluntary and provides a means by which universities can address racial inequalities within the sector and we will continue our work with Advance HE to support this goal.”
The row comes as the Higher Education Free Speech Bill is being debated in the Lords, where it has come under fire from Tory, Labor and other peers. He has been criticized for imposing a new free speech regulator with new powers to fine universities for failing to comply with free speech provisions.
The vice chancellors said Donelan’s letter was a chilling precursor to how a regulator could interfere with the university’s internal affairs if the bill were passed in its current form, one of them describing it as “an unambiguous attack on university autonomy”.
David Willetts, a Tory peer and former minister for universities, said: ‘I want to see protections for free speech, but it is very strange to protect free speech alongside other interventions.
“I think one of the reasons why UK universities are so respected internationally is their autonomy. the autonomy of our universities is gradually being eroded.
The letter to Donelan, signed by Professor Steve West, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West of England, reminded the Minister that racism remained ‘a pervasive societal problem’ which affected students from minority backgrounds ethnic.
But he added: “Universities, as autonomous institutions, must also remain free to decide how best to foster inclusion and tackle societal issues such as racism, which have a serious impact and detrimental to staff and students.”
The letter continued: “We do not believe that free speech and voluntary external assurance frameworks are at odds with each other – rather they can help address power imbalances and ensure that a wider range diversity of voices is empowered to express themselves.
“We understand from our members in England that a number are likely to respond to you directly, both to reaffirm their commitment to guaranteeing freedom of expression and to underline how important external assurance schemes play a role in the resolution of serious problems such as harassment and deficiencies in the awarding of diplomas. ”
While Donelan’s letter noted that universities are autonomous and free to join programs such as the Charter for Racial Equality, she went on to say that they should “consider carefully” membership.
While Advance HE’s racial equality charter was the only example mentioned by name, Donelan went on to say that “there are of course a number of other similar programs, and this letter urges particular attention to the ‘respect of all’.
Advance HE also administers the Athena Swan Charter which aims to improve gender equality in higher education and research. Donelan has previously described the program as “at worst a dangerous initiative that undermines scholarship.”
“Given the substantial sums invested by the taxpayer in higher education, I would ask you to consider whether membership in these schemes; the resulting initiatives; and creating new high-paying leadership positions in these areas is really good value for taxpayers or students,” Donelan said.
Criticizing the Freedom of Higher Education Bill during its debate this week, Shami Chakrabarti, a Labor peer and former director of Liberty, said: “How can it be a protection of academic freedom to give more and more power over independent institutions of scholarship the Government Student Office and the new Director of Free Speech? »
Willetts said the current bill is tough and wondered how the bill’s free speech regulator can balance government demands that certain forms of legal speech, such as denial of the holocaust, would not be allowed on campus.
“They expect the regulator to be more restrictive than just legal free speech. We need to know exactly what things he or she won’t protect even though they are legal,” Willetts said.
Willetts said he hoped the government would make ‘meaningful’ changes to the bill, pointing out that universities could find themselves punished for suppressing certain forms of speech at the same time as tech platforms were being punished under the new bill. the government’s online security law for forwarding the same notices.