Opinion UK

Oxford among worst universities for free speech, again

So Oxford has been ranked in the category of worst in the UK for free speech. Yet again, as spiked said before. Mark me unsurprised…

A new study out from Civitas has declared Oxford one of the worst universities in the UK for free speech. This builds on trends dating back 5 years from other outlets running similar warnings; they’ve clearly gone unheeded. The study does not present a profile for each university (though these would exist and could presumably be requested if one were curious) studied but rather agglomerates them into three different groups based on analysing 22 different factors. Oxford stars in the ‘most restrictive’ category alongside some 47 other UK universities, including,  but not limited to, neighbours Brookes, The Other Place, all London campuses generally (except King’s and LSE), and St. Andrews.  The study recommends that the government take action regarding universities in this category to correct their climate. I’m reluctant to consider government action as a general rule, but it seems that in situations like this where the institutions in question are state backed it’s fair game for a contracting party to alter the terms under which it wants that contract executed, so long as it’s mutually agreed. 

One solution seems fair from the outset – universities (or perhaps individual colleges where appropriate) could adopt statements or charters either stating their support for the freedom of expression, in line with Chicago (the study even goes so far as to attach an archetype of The Chicago Statement at its close, available here), or make a statement declaring affiliation to differing priorities, whatever they may be, a la Brown. This is not meant to imply any prejudice one way or another but merely inform the ultimate consumers of education, students, to make better decisions about where they choose to study and, in turn, for discipline of constant dealings to apply, at least to some degree. This is especially important as an increasing proportion of the population hold degrees. As access to education rightfully increases, employers shift hiring tests and standards. This has in turn led to degree qualification constituting a barrier to entry in many labour markets, either explicitly in areas like law and medicine or implicitly in others. This renders participants in these markets captive to the universities, at least in terms of entry, if not operation beyond that stage, so picking the right one is crucial.

Furthermore, cultures and values upheld by institutions are often hereditary, and this can suppress debate on otherwise logically valid change therein. This remains true no matter how frantically members of a given body deny it; cultures pass from year to year of students and social circles. I’m sure you all can think of  at least one instance, if not more, of such a phenomenon in your own faculty or college, I know I can. Students should, therefore, be fully conscious of these cultures before applying and filter for their best fits, no matter their inclinations. This way, informational corruption from both differing incentives and perspective between politicians and students are minimised; politicians don’t have to go to university, students do. 

This difference in the strength of incentive very often manifests in legislation, with regrettable effects, though more often rears its ugly head in analytics. Inefficient bureaucracies set arbitrary criteria for ranking, these criteria are then gamed per Goodhart’s law (the idea that criteria distinguished from others cease to be good criteria as they are immediately optimised for at the expense of others and actual utility) as opposed to a genuine effort being made to resolve the core issue. It still applies here though, especially when studies such as this try and create aggregate numerical indicators for the attitude of a given university towards free speech. The study itself alludes to this idea: where codes of protected speech or anything to that effect were imposed, it was never long before they were weaponised by their very opponents to draw contrast to other forms of speech which could arguably be excluded from them. Yet, the solution had been implemented and the criterion satisfied, no? No indeed. So, solutions which maximise the ability of students to calculate which decision is most efficient for them and follow accordingly should be prioritised; it seems a strong argument to prioritise these over flat-footed laws. 

This would then be distinguished from the aforementioned law– s.43 of the Education Act No.2, 1986. This is the statutory rule which requires universities to maintain freedom of speech ‘within the law’. It also directs specific emphasis, again within the law, towards protecting individuals and groups from discrimination on account of their beliefs, views, policies or objectives. Some still argue that this is too wide; that the law is too inflexible a bar on speech and so universities need to be able to decide their own priorities rather than being subject to creatures of statute. Even granting this argument for now, surely, running it consistently would play into the above paragraph? If decisions regarding the limits of speech in universities are brought solely to the level of those institutions, let the members, both current and prospective, decide.

A common counterargument raised is the danger of the echo chamber; that we risk dividing our students by university and following that perhaps far more dangerously by region, profession etc. on political lines which should be free from arbitrary tribe affiliations wherever possible. The reply here would be that this already occurs on campuses without the freedom of informed choice for students to associate where they will; students are much more aware of politics before coming to university than their predecessors were,  due to easier access to information. Even discounting this, friendships on individual campuses often organise themselves along these lines, sad though it may be. Better on the balance of probabilities therefore, to allow the declared choice ahead of time and permit the risk? From that point, let the best idea win…