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Is the curbing of free speech in universities most prevalent in those with inflated diversity grievance bureaucracies?

Jim McConalogue, Jack Harris and Rachel Neal, July 2021

There is a strong connection between universities with inflated diversity bureaucracies and those that limit speech more generally on campus, researchers at Civitas find in a survey of academic freedom at universities.

The Higher Education (Free Speech) Bill, introduced by the government earlier this year, is evidence of its steadfast commitment to upholding freedom of speech on university campuses in response to concerning developments in recent times of ‘cancel culture’ and ‘no platforming’. However, researchers at Civitas have found further reasons to be concerned about further education settings, as ‘the university sector is facing increasing demands from within to expand the diversity grievance bureaucracy which, in turn, is often found to be restrictive of a free speech culture within universities.’

The research finds:

  • Well over half (83) of all 140 universities were found to have some form of anonymous reporting service or tool.
  • 35 per cent (50) of all universities were found to explicitly use the corporate Report + Support anonymous reporting tool.
  • Of all the 38 universities previously scoring an above average level of free speech controversies/episodes on campus, 71 per cent (27) have been found to currently implement a trio of policy instruments in an inflated diversity bureaucracy – including tools for the anonymous reporting of academics and students, a race equality charter & membership of an externally-sourced diversity training programme.
  • In contrast, of those institutions who were recorded as below the median level of free speech controversies across all universities, less than a quarter (24 per cent) had such an unwieldy diversity bureaucracy.
  • Over 60 per cent (88) of the institutions were found to belong to an externally-sourced diversity training programme.
  • Well over half (79) of all universities were also found to be Race Equality Charter members.

To better understand the crisis of free speech on university campuses, the research in this report identifies several key actors, such as Vice-Chancellors’ deepening commitment to extensive equality bureaucracies, an over-reliance on diversity training organisations and a growing ‘grievance industrial complex’ which has exacerbated intolerance on campuses.

The Free Speech Bill has been viewed by many leading voices as a step in the right direction, but policy makers must not lose sight of the various instruments inside and associated with universities which also serve to undermine free speech on campus.

The report finds:

‘With schools and universities seen to be increasingly embedding these ultra-progressive techniques into their institutions, there is reason to suspect these issues perhaps reflect a wider malaise of public life rather than an issue isolated to simply our universities. If that is true, then policy must be focussed on the long-term causes.’

The report focuses in particular on two instruments used by universities which may eventually curb free speech: anonymous reporting services and the increasing adoption of the Race Equality Charter.

It was reported recently that high-profile UK universities had employed anonymous reporting services to monitor microaggressions on campus. It was highly criticised at the time by free speech organisations for its censorious implications, where ‘Dons can be reported for raising an eyebrow’.

Our report finds that well over half of universities have an anonymous reporting service, and 35 per cent use the corporate Report + Support anonymous service.

The risks posed by anonymous reporting services to free speech are multiple. By further accepting the premise of ‘microaggressions’, universities monitor their prevalence and thereby follow a path set out by ultra-progressive social activists. There ‘remains a real risk that the collection of this data by universities will be used to enact larger, institutional reforms of universities which could potentially limit free speech’.

The report argues:

‘Universities must avoid using anonymous reporting tools or risk curbs to academic freedom and freedom of speech on campuses, and the government has to reconsider the role hate crime laws are playing in these developments.’

The second focus of this report is the widely adopted Race Equality Charter at universities. The Race Equality Charter (REC) addresses the “representation” and “institutional” barriers minority people face in British universities.  Our research finds that well over half (79) of universities are members of the REC.

The report considers that universities have lost sight of their real purpose as institutions:

‘The higher education landscape enables Vice-Chancellors, combined with diversity bureaucrats, to build up a team of administrators or professionals (inside or associated with their higher education institutions) who have the clear and designated purpose of pursuing progressive quotas and targets on equalities and diversity.

‘Universities should primarily be institutions of knowledge and learning, not places to achieve social justice, which they do not have either the mandate for or ability to achieve. No comparable architecture exists for upholding free speech.’

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