If the Office for Students is all about freedom of speech, the policy must be consistent

Jo Johnson’s support for free expression unravels when it comes to Palestine, says Jonathan Rosenhead

This article first appeared in the Times Higher on  11 January 2018

Jo Johnson MP, former Minister for Universities

In a tangle of mixed messages, Jo Johnson – who until last week was the UK’s universities minister – has launched a sadly misshapen new body, the Office for Students (OfS), into a turbulent sea. This was supposed to be, in the minister’s own words, a “classic marketing regulator”. So: ensuring quality standards, promoting a balance between supply and demand, value for money – like the water companies’ regulator Ofwat maybe? Well, no. In his 26 December speech heralding the OfS’ opening for business, all this was as good as forgotten. Now, it seems, it is all about freedom of speech. What is going on?

This revised mission for the OfS has drawn fire from no less than Universities UK. For 30 years, the statutory duty to ensure freedom of expression at universities has rested on the 1986 Education Act, backed up by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. But the legislation setting up the OfS has given it the power to determine whether each university’s protocol for responding to complaints about infringements is up to snuff.

Government minister Jo Johnson tells Universities Free Speech
Government minister Jo Johnson tells Universities to clamp down on free speech

It is easy to see this legislative nutcracker as ensuring less freedom for students, collectively, aimed as it is at preventing students’ unions from establishing “no platform” policies. (Bizarrely, the plan is to fine, suspend or even de-register the parent university for transgressions, even though students’ unions are independent bodies.)

Freedom of speech is never absolute. There is a range of things you cannot say without penalty, whether at a university or elsewhere – from incitement to racial hatred to outraging public decency. The National Union of Students has responsibly come up with a sensible list of six organisations, from Al-Muhajiroun, the banned jihadist organisation, through to the neo-Nazi group National Action, that it recommends should not be allowed to speak on campus.

Some scepticism about this government’s commitment to freedom of speech is appropriate, given its lack of concern about the effects of its anti-terror Prevent strategy on freedom of expression, especially at universities. So why is Johnson mountaineering over this “no platforming” molehill? Need we look any further than the Daily Mail for an answer? For years, the newspaper has been banging the drum, with headlines like “Silenced by feminazis” or “banned by our politically correct universities… Britain’s students: the new fascists?” Legislating against no platforming may have seemed an easy way to throw the Mail some red meat; this government needs all the friends it can get.

There are more reasons for scepticism – because in his Boxing Day speech Johnson managed to point in two entirely contradictory directions. Perhaps there were two authors: Jo Johnsons #1 and #2. The alter ego’s section was headed “Standing firm against antisemitism on campus”. Few people would disagree in principle with this ambition, but it can be achieved only by restricting free speech, which Johnson #1 abhors.

It gets worse. In his speech, the minister specifically namechecks the academic and politician Baroness Deech and former government minister Sir Eric Pickles as his co-workers against antisemitism, both of whom have illiberal form on this issue. In 2016, Lady Deech told The Daily Telegraph that some British universities were becoming no-go zones for Jews: something that even the Union of Jewish Students had to deny. In 2015, Pickles was instrumental in getting an international legal conference at the University of Southampton cancelled on grounds of antisemitism. (Current environment minister Michael Gove joined in, describing it as “an anti-Israel hate-fest”.)

This is where the contradiction between the two Johnsons comes into clearer focus. Johnson #1 wants to be repressively liberal; but Johnson #2 has allied himself with an illiberal attempt, in effect, to inhibit criticism of Israel on campus. For some years, universities themselves – not students’ unions – have been routinely obstructing campus events that focus on Palestinian rights and their denial by Israel. The government’s own adoption of a most peculiar document named the “International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism” a year ago has fuelled this, with play-safe administrations seemingly unclear about the difference between anti-Zionism and antisemitism.

This IHRA “definition” consists of two parts – a rather vague two-sentence statement, plus a full page of guidance largely devoted to giving examples of criticisms of Israel that could be antisemitic. It now turns out that the guidance was never even approved by IHRA itself (which only agreed those two sentences). The Labour Party wisely only bought into the two sentences.

It was Johnson himself who, last February, instructed Universities UK to send the putative IHRA definition to all universities – with a pointed suggestion that they adopt it for internal use. No single act in recent years has been less helpful to free speech in universities. Campus events during Israeli Apartheid Week – an annual international protest against Israel’s treatment of Palestinians – last February were widely obstructed or cancelled by university authorities, with the IHRA definition widely cited.

The lack of clarity in government policy on freedom of speech in universities is verging on blatant. Will Johnson’s successor, Sam Gyimah, agree to a public debate, in print or in person, to give him (them) a chance to clarify whether the policy is to free up campus discussion on Israel/Palestine, or to close it down? Alternatively, perhaps the ongoing parliamentary inquiry into freedom of speech in universities by the Joint Committee on Human Rights will be able to penetrate the mysteries.

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