At the end of June, the Right Honourable Michelle Donelan, then Minister of State for Further and Higher Education, sent a chilling letter to higher education providers (HEPs) discouraging them from engaging with equality assurance schemes, calling out the Race Equality Charter in particular.
By the time the first draft of this article was nearing completion, Donelan had been promoted to Minister for Education and we reflected that we must ensure that she does not put the ‘National’ in National Curriculum in the same way that Adolf Hitler put the ‘National’ in National Socialism. We knew that bringing Hitler into any debate was a cheap shot, but eroding free speech in the name of free speech comes straight from his play book: persecuting minorities in defence of an inclusive society was where that ended and where we cannot allow this government to tread. Donelan only lasted 36 hours as Minister for Education, so a further rewrite has been necessary and now, at the time of rewriting, we await the second reading of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill.
In 1984, George Orwell begins by telling us that the official motto of Oceania is ‘War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength’. In case the irony is lost on anyone, he tells us these words are written in enormous letters on the white pyramid that is the Ministry of Truth. In Orwell’s dystopian future, doublethink allows ‘The Party’ to present clear contradictions without irony. Today our government is telling us that they want to promote free speech in higher education by limiting what we are allowed to say within HEPs and Donelan has argued that inclusion will be advanced by ditching equality assurance schemes. Today Orwell seems more prophet than novelist.
The absurd claim at the centre of Donelan’s thinly veiled missive was that equality assurance schemes limited free speech and reduced inclusivity, two things she claimed (with no apparent sense of irony) that the current government stood for.
Protecting free speech – the cornerstone of academic freedom – and advancing inclusion are laudable aims. One of the current authors wrote in 2017 that:
“[The] normative claim is strong, universities should be places where all voices are heard, everyone should be given a platform with very few restrictions.”
The reality, however, is that not all voices are created equal.
HEPs are unequal spaces in which some voices are over-represented in positions of power and influence and others underrepresented, or not represented at all. We have both worked in the past for HEPs with no people of colour above Associate Professor grade, which leads to the question: ‘In a room full of white people, is the lack of black and brown voices really a freedom of speech issue?’ In this context, the normative claim for unrestricted free speech requires either equality assurance schemes or things that do the job these schemes currently do – that is, giving a voice to those who are not represented. Donelan names two schemes specifically, Advance HE’s Race Equality Charter and ATHENA Swan. Neither of these schemes dictates how to respond to complex questions: what they do is ensure that HEPs have processes in place to safeguard that those with different characteristics are listened to. Our freedom of speech is contingent on us being listened to: not agreed with, but listened to. Otherwise, it is little more than enshrining our right to talk to ourselves, alone. These schemes then have an important role in advancing free speech and, in doing so, reducing the number of voices that are excluded. Exclusion is the literal opposite of inclusion, but if we adopt doublethink then perhaps ‘exclusion promotes inclusion’ can be written in enormous letters on the Department for Education. It is at least slightly more subtle than raising the middle finger.
The more chilling undertone to Donelan’s letter is a long-standing Conservative strategy of restricting what we are allowed to say whilst at the same time turning up the volume on what we say. Something ‘The Party’ embraces in Orwell’s classic. In 2017, one of the current authors reflected on educational policy going back to 2011:
Michael Gove, then Secretary of State for Education, grabbed that opportunity with both hands and ran and ran and ran with it, elevating those things he, as a privileged white man, valued and disregarding everything else.
More recently, Sewell even makes the charge that those who… bang on about racial injustice risk alienating “the decent centre ground”. This disregarding has evolved into apparently criminalising certain things being mentioned in an educational setting, again in alleged defence of free speech and again with no apparent sense of irony. For example – Kemi Badenoch, the then Minister for Women and Equalities and current Conservative leadership challenger, claiming in Parliament in October 2020 that teaching white privilege and Critical Race Theory were both illegal.
Limiting what it is permissible to say whilst encouraging those who promote the dominant ideology to speak up was policy in many real regimes as well as in Orwell’s dystopian future. Silencing women, ethnic minorities, religious minorities and homosexuals has been the keystone of every fascist state ideology, more often than not dressed up in the language of free speech.
Donelan was continuing a proud Conservative tradition of censuring those who disagreed with ‘truth’ as dictated by ‘The Party’ and despite her leaving government if the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill becomes law, this tradition will continue.
This law would for the first time in our combined academic careers put us at risk of sanction for teaching necessary and relevant content and fostering our students as critical thinkers. Freedom is slavery.
‘Teleola Cartwright and Dr Nick Cartwright are Consulting Fellows at Halpin.