Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The problem with Tory plans to force universities to uphold free speech

Even if there were a real problem with “Generation Snowflake”, this so-called solution won't work.

The Conservatives lost their majority in June for a number of reasons. The pressure on wages caused by the fall in the pound; the condition of the public realm in general and looming school cuts in particular; the loss of Remain voters in marginal seats being inadequately replaced by Leave voters in safe ones; the appeal of Jeremy Corbyn; and because a large number of socially liberal voters under the age of 55 who backed David Cameron didn't feel comfortable with Theresa May.

As the government has no majority and no money, it's difficult to see how it can add more votes to its tally by easing the pressure on wages or investing in the public realm. It's harder still for it to retreat from Brexit without disintegrating still further. One of the many wonderful things about social liberalism is that it's free. It's about what you don't do, say, restrict or censure. The easiest way for the Conservatives to do better next time is not to upset the sensibilities of liberal voters and the young (in demographic terms, that's everyone under 40).

That's the context that matters as far as assessing the government's new wheeze for universities, wheeled out in an interview with the Times by higher education minister Jo Johnson. The problem, real or perceived: the increasing illiberalism of students on campus. The solution: for universities that fail to enforce free speech to be fined, suspended or ultimately deregistered by the new Office for Students.

There is a major flaw in the policy that is worth noting right off the bat: the people being punished aren't the same ones "oppressing free speech". I am yet to meet a campus radical who is particularly worried about the logistical or financial consequences of their actions on the university. Instead, the proposed "solution" puts pressure on university administrators and vice-chancellors.

When they clash with the government over free speech, it's because they believe, rightly or wrongly, that the anti-terrorism Prevent strategy limits their speech and academic freedoms.

So the big policy flaw is that even if there is a real problem with "Generation Snowflake" shutting down free speech at university, Johnson's solution won't work. (The actual evidence, to the extent it matters in debates such as these, is that the young are actually more supportive of free speech and other liberty issues than the old in the main.)

Now here's the political problem: the blunt truth is that student politics exercises only two groups: a small minority of earnest students who will move on to other things once they graduate, and a freakish slice of the over-50s, for whom there is no cure. A government that wants to convince voters it has its eye on the ball wouldn't wade in on either side and it certainly wouldn't do so with a policy lever as misconceived as this one.

But in siding with the eccentric old against the idealistic young, it adds to the general smell of distaste towards the under-40s that the Conservative Party has begun to emit following its election reverse. Rather like Philip Hammond's witless speech about how bad the 1970s were, it's not a problem because the young have a particular regard for nationalisation or prog rock – in fact they are less supportive of either than their older peers.

But this conveys the same impression: that the modern Conservative Party thinks the young, many of whom voted for them as recently as two years ago, are historically ill-informed, easily tricked and triggered by the whistling of a kettle – and to make matters worse, it would cross the street to tell them so.

One of the things that Cameron understood is that you can't win people's votes if you appear to hate them. It's to Labour's great benefit that this is a lesson much of his party has forgotten. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

Show Hide image

What the university staff strike reveals about our broken higher education system

The marketisation of our universities is facing its biggest opposition yet.

The biggest industrial strike ever by academic staff in Britain's universities has begun.

National newspapers are running panicked headlines about what may happen if the strike lasts: “University strike puts final exams in danger”, warns The Times. “University strikes could hit exams and graduation ceremonies”, says the Guardian. But as well as affecting the education of students who are heavily in debt, the strikes will hit academics with very different levels of job security, and university establishments at a time when higher education is on the political agenda. 

The University and College Union voted for strike action last month over a failure to reach an agreement with Universities UK (UUK), the body which represents of the Vice Chancellors of every university in the country, over changes to academics' pension plans.

The pension scheme at the heart of the conflict, the Universities Superannuation Scheme, currently has over 400,000 participants. UUK have stated that the pension scheme currently has a £6.1bn deficit and that the cost of future benefits has increased by one third since 2014. They are proposing a switch from a direct benefit pension scheme (fixed, guaranteed pension payments) to a direct contribution scheme (reliant on stock markets) to maintain the scheme's sustainability.

However, many academics argue the deficit is overstated, and is instead a cynical attempt to reduce the universities' pension liabilties. 

Older and more senior academics who have already spent several decades paying into the system will be less affected by the changes, as contributions will be protected under the old scheme until 2019. 

UCU however allege that this change will result in an average yearly £10,000 loss in staff members' pensions. Academics at 61 universities, including the likes of Oxbridge, UCL, Imperial College London, Cardiff University and the University of Edinburgh will be striking for 14 days. 

The strikes begin on Thursday, and yet no-one seems to know what will happen. FAQs provided by universities to students all appear to have a similar theme: Academic disruption will be minimised, but if you have a complaint, please email us. 

16 percent of academic staff at these universities will be on strike (because most academics aren't a part of a union) but lectures and seminars have still been cancelled. It is still unclear for students whether they will be examined on subjects that they will miss. 

But for the most part, students appear to support the academics. Mark Crawford, a Postgraduate Sabbatical Officer at UCL (the biggest university in the country to strike) says he has been pleasantly surprised by the number of students who have messaged asking him how they can help. 

Perhaps this is due to the pains some academics have gone to minimise the disruption their students will face. Some lecturers have made presentations available online, and have amendeded their reading lists. One academic at King's College London, KCL, has even rearranged her seminars off campus. 

Yet this feeling of goodwill may disappear when reality kicks in. Robert Adderly, a second year Law student at KCL, and a campaigner for the student group provocatively titled “Students Against Strikes” says he’s unsure how supportive students will be once the action actually begins. 

Adderly, while sympathetic to the concerns of the academics does not believe striking is the most effective way to negotiate with Universities UK. He goes on to say that he believes “neither side is willing to compromise” and says that the “only people losing out are students.”

He also says he believes a lot of students “haven’t assessed how they really feel about the strikes” and that the “longer it goes on, the more students who will get angry”. 

Adderly's thoughts are backed by a poll conducted by Trendence UK, a market research company, which found that 38 per cent of students supported their academics on strike, compred to 38 per cent who did not.

Several academics have spoken to the New Statesman off the record about feelings of uneasiness around the strike, arguing that there is a better, less disruptive way of resolving the pension debate. Others are unsure about the leadership of UCU and believe striking will only lead to a build up of work later. 

Professor Andrew Pomiankowski at UCL emailed his students saying while he supported the strike, he would continue conducting his classes this week. He later told the New Statesman “I have a lot of sympathy with the reasons for the strike - the loss of provision of pensions, especially for the younger members of staff. Talking is the only way of resolving this problem. However, I don’t feel that I should disrupt teaching of students. That’s a step too far.”

The strikes go to the heart of the debate about the marketisation of university. Even students who support the strike are in conflict with one another. Notably, students who support the strikes are unhappy with campaigns such as Adderly’s which are also demanding universities compensate them for lost teaching hours. Crawford says your “first instinct shouldn’t be how much am I losing? It should be how much is our staff losing.”

On the other hand, Adderly argues we shouldn’t pretend the marketisation of university hasn’t already happened, saying “It’s here. It’s happening. We are now consumers.” 

Though it appears unlikely that universities will refund students, these strikes are highlighting how our attitudes to higher education have changed in a short space of time, and causing some to ask if this is the future we want for British higher education.