Teach students how to ‘disagree well’, says UCL president

UCL president and provost Dr Michael Spence says universities have a role in teaching “the art of having a good debate”

Universities must teach students how to “disagree well”, the president of UCL has said.

In an interview about free speech, Dr Michael Spence said that in order to tackle “cancel culture”, undergraduates  should learn how to debate controversial issues courteously.

The Australian-born legal scholar took up his role at UCL in January 2021 after serving as the vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney.

“The core issue is that we have forgotten about how to disagree well,” Dr Spence told the Telegraph. “Part of what we have a responsibility at universities to do is to model and to teach students how to disagree well across really sometimes quite profound barriers of disagreement.

“Practising the norms of disagreeing well, not making an enemy of other people, trying to work out where there is common ground – these are core intellectual skills that I think universities have a fundamental role in teaching.”

A concern that initially seems shared, turns out on closer inspection to involve quite different understandings of how academic freedom should work – Dr Michael Spence

Dr Spence has spoken out in the past on the thorny issue of freedom of speech on campus.

In his farewell oration to the University of Sydney last November, he spoke of how academic freedom was defined differently by those on the left, politically, and those on the right.

Both were, he said “currently convinced that academic freedom is under imminent threat in our institutions.

“But for the left, academic freedom often seems to mean the freedom of academics entirely unhindered to do, or not to do, just whatever they please in their teaching, research, public commentary, or any other aspect of their work.

“For the right, it seems to mean the freedom to express conservative views on issues such as the costs and benefits of empire, the termination of a pregnancy, or on human gender and sexuality, without attracting either formal, or informal, sanction, and sometimes even criticism, from staff and students.

“A concern that initially seems shared, turns out on closer inspection to involve quite different understandings of how academic freedom should work, and the threats that it faces.”

Last week, the Russell Group released a statement about its collective approach to free speech, saying its members were committed to the “open and rigorous contestation of ideas” and only limit that principle “in exceptional circumstances… in a manner mindful of the fundamental importance of freedom of speech”.

In February, the government said it would develop legislation to “strengthen free speech and academic freedom” at universities in England, requiring public-funded HE providers to sign a new covenant to “actively promote free speech” on campuses and creating a new champion for free speech and academic freedom to the board of the Office for Students (OfS).


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