Examination of Witnesses

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 5:31 pm ar 13 Medi 2021.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Professor Paul Layzell and Professor Jonathan Grant gave evidence.

Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Llafur, Bradford South

We will now hear evidence from Professor Paul Layzell, principal of Royal Holloway, University of London, and chair of the Universities UK advisory group on free speech and academic freedom, and from Professor Jonathan Grant, professor of public policy at King’s College London, who is joining us remotely via Zoom. We have until 6 o’clock for this session.

I ask the witnesses to please introduce yourselves for the record. Professor Layzell, will you start?

Professor Layzell:

I am Professor Paul Layzell. I am principal of Royal Holloway, University of London, but I am here in my capacity as a board member of Universities UK and chair of the working group on freedom of speech.

Professor Grant:

Good afternoon. I am Professor Jonathan Grant, professor of public policy at King’s College, London. I used to be vice-principal for service, where I had some responsibility for the operationalisation around freedom of speech, although I should stress that today I am speaking in a personal capacity.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Thank you, and welcome to the Committee. We really appreciate you joining us today, Professor Layzell and Professor GrantQ257 .

Given all the pressures and issues that universities are facing, is this Bill a priority for the higher education- sector? I put that question to Professor Layzell first.

Professor Layzell:

Freedom of speech is a priority for the sector. It is an absolutely integral and fundamental part of what we are about. I cannot imagine that there is a vice-chancellor or board in the country that would not want to promote freedom of speech. As your previous witness said, there have been issues, and I think we recognise the commitment to bring forward legislation. For the universities sector, it must be proportionate and help to deal with complex situations. Vice-chancellors and their senior teams are concerned about the interplay of this legislation and other legislation. I think we have made some recommendations in our submission about ministerial statements that make clear the position of this legislation with respect to other duties. In addition, if the Office for Students was encouraged to work with us, we could work with it to develop a code of practice based on case studies and examples of dealing not with the straightforward freedom of speech issues that are often cited, but with situations where a number of issues come together. If that helps decision making and brings transparency and clarity, it is welcome.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q Do you think a tighter code of practice and guidelines from the OfS, maybe along the lines of the Chicago principles, could have achieved what you have just described, or do you think it needed something like a tort and this legislation?

Professor Layzell:

I think that that would have gone a long way towards achieving the situation I have just described, but there are other things in the Bill on complaints systems and the requirement to positively promote freedom of speech that I do not think anybody in the sector would have a problem with.

Professor Grant:

To answer your first question, I think it is somewhat overkill. That would be my overall assessment, but I think it conflates a number of issues, so it is a slightly more nuanced response. On the elements around cancel culture, when you look at the data it is very rare that events are cancelled or people get no-platformed. I have concerns around the chilling effect, which I heard previous witnesses talk about, but I wonder whether regulation is the way to address those concerns. There are elements that could do damage, but overall I am reasonably neutral about the Bill, albeit slightly cynical about whether it will achieve its objectives.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q There is a lot of colourful language used such as “icebergs” and “extreme crisis”. How do you think the views of students compare with those of wider society when it comes to freedom of speech?

Professor Grant:

We know from the survey that we did a couple of years ago, where we went out and asked students exactly those questions, that 81% of students support free speech, 81% of students support a version of the Chicago principles, and the vast majority of students think that free speech is more likely to be challenged in broader society than in their universities, so the idea that students do not buy into the concept of free speech is an absolute red herring, in my view. As I said, that survey also demonstrated some quite worrying statistics around the concept of a chilling effect where people are self-censoring themselves in classrooms.

That for me is where the issue is. It is not about the process of inviting people on to campus and worrying about no-platforming and cancel culture. The data there says that it is a non-issue. If we could move our conversation from that issue on to the chilling effect and how we have a more open culture on campus where people of different views feel confident in expressing them, I think that would be a much more useful conversation.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q Professor Layzell, many people have voiced concerns regarding the legislation as drafted. We heard from a witness last week, a lawyer, who really feared where it would take us in terms of litigation, and what will happen on university campuses, in student unions and so on. In your experience, given your position, can universities really afford the scale of the burden of bureaucracy, and the potential financial cost, of some of the claims that might get dragged into from certain speakers?

Professor Layzell:

The first point to make is that it is important that the legal options that are being presented in the Bill do not cut across the existing mechanisms. There are plenty of mechanisms within universities to deal with complaints internally. There is other apparatus around employment tribunals and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education. Of course, we have the proposed OfS complaints scheme, so there is a lot of apparatus there.

What we want is something that ends up being proportionate and manageable. In our written submission, we suggested that there be a mechanism to prevent frivolous and vexatious claims. Completing internal processes, which we would be quite happy to operate, should be a condition before going to law. We would also recommend that the scope was limited to those who were directly affected by alleged breaches of freedom of speech. Our worry is that the apparatus gets used for other purposes. If it is framed carefully, we could avoid that. That is the thing that we would not want to waste our time on.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q Do you think that academic freedom needs stronger definition?

Professor Layzell:

I think the definition is fine. We have the concept of academic freedom of speech within the law already. This puts a nuance on it, but I think we are quite happy with the definition as it is.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Llafur, North Durham

The problem with the Bill as it is written is that there is no stipulation that, per your very sensible suggestion, people would have to go through the internal complaints process first, which is the usual thing for ombudsmen and anything else. If we are not careful, we could end up with people resorting straight to law if they want to make a political point. That is going to cost the universities a lot. In some cases, they will settle just to get rid of themQ .

Professor Layzell:

That is why you would want the full internal and existing apparatus to be fully utilised before we go into that final stage.

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Ceidwadwyr, North West Durham

Professor Grant, I agree with your analysis that the bigger concern seems to be self-censorship, but we are a little unclear on the levels of evidence around this. Could you outline some of the evidence of self-censorship that you have seen? Is this something that affects you in your department at King’sQ ?

Professor Grant:

This is one of those things that is really hard to get good evidence on. In the survey we did of 2,000 students, about a quarter said that they felt unable to express views in their university because they were nervous about disagreeing with their peers. That is a big number; if a quarter of the students in a class are nervous about expressing their views, that worries me. We then followed up that survey data through focus groups. In those groups, this was the issue that the students landed on. Focus groups are by definition small numbers so we need to treat some of this evidence carefully, but they were saying that they felt that reading lists in certain topics were biased to one view or another and were not balanced, and that lecturers quite often had some political view that they would express in the classroom, and if the students disagreed with that, they were nervous about expressing contrarian views in that context.

We followed that up with a focus group with a mix of vice-chancellors from the UK, Australia and the US. What was interesting for me was that when we put that evidence on the table, the response from the vice-chancellors was “We cannot tell our lecturers what to put on their reading list because that would breach academic freedom.” What I find interesting in the Bill is that tension between the desire to promote free speech––and cool the chilling effect––and the concept of academic freedom, and how it is actually the academic who decides what to teach in the classroom. That is why I am not convinced that regulation or legislation is going to solve this. I think it is deeper: it is cultural, it is values-driven.

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Ceidwadwyr, North West Durham

Q But you do accept that legislation can help to lead that values change? Many academics have told us already today that the fact that this is being talked about in an open session in Parliament is helping lead to some of those conversations on campus.

Professor Grant:

I entirely accept that. I am glad we are having the conversation and maybe the legislation has sparked us to have that conversation. What I wait to see—I cannot answer this; I am speculating––is whether the legislation will have an impact on that 25% of people who feel that they cannot say what they want to and whether it will change the behaviours of lecturers in the classroom to get more balanced reading lists. I hope that is the case, but we do not know at this stage. If this legislation leads to that, then it has been successful.

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Ceidwadwyr, North West Durham

Q So at the moment your view on the legislation is a wait-and-see approach—perhaps slightly moved from being opposed to it?

Professor Grant:

Yes. As I said at the outset, I would distinguish two elements. The legislation around the so-called cancel culture piece is, to me, redundant. It is broadly a non-issue. I am much more interested in the issue I have just been talking about. It is a wait-and-see approach. I will be delighted if it works. I look forward to seeing that.

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Ceidwadwyr, North West Durham

Q Your emphasis has been on the student and their feeling of academic freedom, which is something that we have not discussed in as much depth as we have for the academics themselves. Do you get the feeling that some of the academics you work with also feel that they have to self-censor in what they are doing, or is that more on the student side in your experience?

Professor Grant:

I am going to be very dull and say that we do not know, because I like to look at the research and evidence. I have looked to see how you would survey academics to ask the same questions that we ask the students, and from a purely methodological point of view, it is really difficult to do that, so I will sit on the fence for that question.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Minister of State (Education)

Q The Committee has heard evidence from a number of people who have said that their individual academic freedom, or that of their colleagues and, potentially, their students, has been restricted. Do you both acknowledge that that demonstrates that restrictions on freedom of speech in our universities are actually happening and are not a rare phenomenon?

Professor Layzell:

Universities have a range of processes and procedures in place that protect and provide some protection against that. In my own institution, for example, promotions and reward procedures are anonymised—we focus on the CVs and the evidence in front of us—so existing mechanisms provide a degree of protection. I cannot comment on individual cases. I can guess some of the individuals you are referring to, and they may well have had some experiences where they felt disadvantaged or adversely affected; we recognise that.

In addition, the wording in the Bill varies in different places. In some places it talks about “likelihood” and in others it talks about being “adversely affected”. In our submission, we have suggested that “adversely affected” is a better term and should be used consistently throughout the Bill.

Professor Grant:

I am going to be boringly analytical again. There is no issue when it comes to the cancelling events. The numbers are small, as the OfS demonstrates. There is potentially an issue when it comes to this idea of self-censorship in the classroom, and I think that is a legitimate concern. As I just said, when it comes to academics, we do not know. It is inevitable that people who feel that they have had their freedom of speech inhibited will talk about that, but we do not know about all the other people who are not talking about it. We need to get the data. At this stage, I will say that you cannot answer that question on academics.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Minister of State (Education)

Q I have just one more question. What more do you think universities could do to promote free speech?

Professor Grant:

What we did at King’s was work with our student union in developing a joint statement modelled on the Chicago principles and signed by both the president of the student union and the president of King’s College London. On the back of that, we developed a committee that reviewed all so-called high-risk events. That committee was made up of equal numbers of university staff, academics and professional staff, and students. It made recommendations to the senior vice-principal for operations and, potentially, to the principal. In my mind, creating a sort of co-production and co-creation process around managing those events was deeply beneficial because, as the previous witness said, both sides started having conversations about the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable. Both groups then owned the process and the mitigations thereafter.

Professor Layzell:

I think Universities UK would support what Professor Grant said. Many universities will have similar sorts of processes. I think one other step that could be taken—this comes under the promotion of free speech duty in the Bill—is to help students to better understand the role of university education. It is quite different from school and college. I think the concern that some students have about expressing a view is not necessarily about freedom of speech; it is about having the confidence to speak out and express an opinion.

I think we could do more to help students to understand how the university education process works and the role of freedom of speech and freedom of expression within that, in order to encourage them to have the confidence to express views that might be contrary to those of others in the room and to feel comfortable with that, and to help them understand that that is a normal part of how we do our business; that that is the lifeblood of academic research and teaching. I think we could do more in that respect.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

Jonathan Grant, I am interested in this chilling effect. Did you do any baseline studies on what the chilling effect was in other areas? I ask that because I have done some cursory searching. It is difficult to find, but Facebook has done some internal research and says that 71% of its users, even online, will censor what they say in order to meet the desires of friends and colleagues. Therefore, if that figure of 71% is about accurate—we do not know, because this could be a ballpark figure—a quarter of students is much lower than wider society, so is that an example of how universities are actually much betterQ ?

Professor Grant:

That is an excellent question, and the short answer is no. When we did the survey, we went out to the general public and asked them a range of questions on their attitudes to free speech, and they were broadly the same as students, but we did not ask them that question about self-censorship, so I think it is an entirely legitimate question.

If I may, I just want to pick up on the previous comment, because I visited the University of Chicago a number of years ago, which had set up a programme to teach high school students about free speech, how to debate effectively and take contrarian views, and about the resilience needed to hear something challenging. I absolutely agree with Paul that in universities we could do more to help our students understand what debate is about, how at times it might be painful and the resilience needed to engage in some of that debate.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

Q Thank you, and I totally agree with your point. I went to a comprehensive school, but we had a compulsory debating society every lunchtime, and we were required to take points that we disagreed with, which built resilience. Maybe we need to look at that at secondary school level in our comprehensive system.

Paul, I want to ask you about who takes responsibility for these duties. The Bill is quite unusual in putting the duty on both the institution and the student union, whereas the Education Act 1994 puts the responsibility only on the institution to require the student union. Does that duality of responsibility clarify the issue or, given that most student unions are probably using university premises and university money, does it muddy the question of who will then be responsible for reporting on these issues?

Professor Layzell:

I think the existing position is ambiguous and difficult for the very reasons you mention. There is often a joint process going on. Universities are often responsible for health and safety, security and just managing a significant gathering, yet the event might be organised by the student union. I think that we get around that by having codes of practice and clear sets of responsibilities within institutions on who should be doing what, but it is a good point.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

Q Jonathan Grant mentioned the joint committee that has been set up at King’s. Would something in the Act requiring institutions and student unions to create joint committees to look at this and assess freedom of speech be a better way forward than just having an external regulator?

Professor Layzell:

I think we would be reluctant to over-specify the mechanics. Good relationships between universities and student unions are absolutely essential to make this work. Encouraging that would be good, but as to specifying particular mechanisms or ways of doing it, we all work in slightly different ways and have slightly different student unions, so I think we would need some flexibility.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

Q I have worked at both Sussex and Bradford in the past, so I understand that. Sometimes it seems that universities can be over-cautious, and act as small “c” conservatives about putting on events that might have risk attached. Will the Bill give universities more confidence about putting on events, or will it give them less confidence, because of the tort part, about initiating events?

Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Llafur, Bradford South

May I ask you to keep your answer brief, Professor Layzell, because two more members of the Committee have indicated that they want to speak?

Professor Layzell:

There is a concern around the litigation and making both student unions and universities more risk averse, without the sort of protections that we put in our written submission.

Photo of David Simmonds David Simmonds Ceidwadwyr, Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner

I want to push you on this point about the effectiveness of non-legislative measures and how we compare the norms in different environments. I am not entirely convinced that Facebook, which is essentially an unregulated environment, would have the same norms as you would find in a university and the world of academia. I am not entirely convinced by that analogy, although I understand the point. Both of you have mentioned training and things like anonymisation of promotion processes as a way of addressing the issue, but presumably if those things were entirely effective and consistent, we wouldn’t be hearing the evidence about people suffering this chilling effect. Would you like to reflect on the effectiveness of those existing measures and any lessons that we as a Committee might need to take on board from what appears to be inconsistency in the way they operate?Q

Professor Layzell:

As I said earlier, I think Universities UK would recognise that there have been cases where this approach has not worked as well as one would have wished. If the legislation is proportionate and does not create undesired side-effects such as more risk aversion, it may help to achieve a greater degree of consistency, but it is about keeping proportionality.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Llafur, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

Thank you for your evidence, which has been extremely interesting. I am going to ask similar questions to those I asked earlier about the director of freedom of speech. In the past few evidence sessions, we have heard varying opinions on who the director should be, how they should be appointed and what skills or knowledge they should have. In your evidence, you referred toQ

“the desirability of the preferred candidate having experience of either the higher education or legal sector.”

Why do you think that is desirable?

Professor Layzell:

I think because the challenges that vice-chancellors feel they face arise when situations are complex. A simple black and white issue of saying yes or no is not where the problem is. It is the confluence of a number of legal requirements that you need to get your head around. You have got to have that legal experience and/or experience of dealing with these sorts of situations in higher education. It would be wrong to think that these issues are very simple yes/no decisions; they are generally more complex.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Llafur, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

I agree on complexity. In your evidence, you highlight where legislation must be taken into account: the public sector equality duty, the Equality Act 2010, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and so on. The University of Cambridge has argued for a gradated system of sanctions. Is that something that Universities UK would support?Q

Professor Layzell:

Sanctions against offences?

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Llafur, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

So if the director of free speech was making a judgment on something, they would have a range of sanctions available to them, rather than just going straight for a tort.

Professor Layzell:

Again, we would want the sanctions to be proportionate. I think I would look at it in the context of us all wanting to do better in this space. I think we have heard a number of times that there have been issues, so sanctions that encourage greater consideration, greater thought and learning from one another would be appropriate.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Llafur, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

In the Bill as it stands, there is no right to appeal the decision made by the director for freedom of speech. We have already heard that it could be a political appointment, as the chair of the Office for Students is right now. The director for freedom of speech is judge and jury over decisions over universities, and as it stands there is no right to appeal. Do you think that is right?Q

Professor Layzell:

I think we would have a concern.

Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Llafur, Bradford South

If there are no further questions from Members, I thank the witnesses for their evidence.