The universities minister has warned higher education providers to “reflect carefully” on whether initiatives to support diversity, such as the Race Equality Charter [REC], are consistent with the requirement to protect free speech.
Michelle Donelan yesterday (27 June) wrote to vice-chancellors, suggesting that “university membership and participation in external assurance and benchmarking diversity schemes” might “potentially [be] in tension with creating an environment that promotes and protects free speech.
“There is growing concern that a ‘chilling effect’ on university campuses leaves students, staff and academics unable to freely express their lawful views without fear of repercussion.”
The letter was prompted, said Donelan, by the 13 June approval of free speech legislation in the House of Commons, although the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill must still navigate a number of parliamentary hoops before being passed into law.
Earlier this month, the Sunday Telegraph reported that the 25-strong Common Sense Group of Conservative MPs had written to the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, urging him to ban HE institutions from signing up to the REC.
There is growing concern that a ‘chilling effect’ leaves students, staff and academics unable to freely express their lawful views – Michelle Donelan
“The Race Equality Charter, operated by Advance HE, has recently been the subject of attention from MPs and the media, but there are of course a number of other, similar, schemes, and this letter invites careful consideration in respect of all these,” continued Donelan.
In a statement, Advance HE asserted that: “Freedom of Speech and academic freedom are core principles of higher education. These must be protected. Autonomous institutions must be able to make their own decisions about tackling racism and fostering inclusivity and this includes whether they wish to engage with the Race Equality Charity (REC).
“The REC is about supporting inclusion and belonging and the success of Black, Asian and minority ethnic staff and students, enhancing their voice and input, and therefore the freedom of speech of an institution overall, so they are complementary aims. There are many ways to address racism and we recognise some of these are contested. The REC is a voluntary framework which supports participants in developing approaches to EDI to meet their own context.”
The universities’ minister’s personal views notwithstanding, yesterday’s letter is at pains to note that:
“Universities and other HE providers are autonomous institutions, and the decision over whether or not to join external assurance and benchmarking diversity schemes, is up to each individual provider.”
This explicit acknowledgement is in sharp contrast to a previous assignation from Donelan on how universities should act in issues related to freedom of speech.
Autonomous institutions must be able to make their own decisions about tackling racism and fostering inclusivity and this includes whether they wish to engage with the Race Equality Charity – Advance HE
In October 2021, in the fallout from the resignation of Prof Kathleen Stock from the University of Sussex, her request that other institutions should come “forward and offer [Stock] a suitable position in their own faculty” led to pointed criticism that she had stepped beyond her remit.
“The principle of autonomy for universities to employ staff is enshrined in law,” tweeted her predecessor as universities minister, Chris Skidmore. “Regardless of individual cases, it is vital that we recognise the independence of the academy. Like the judiciary, it must be free from political interference.”
The recent criticism is not the first time that the REC has drawn the ire of Conservative MPs. In July last year, a group of 15 backbenchers called on the education secretary to defund the Advance HE framework because of its “highly contentious racial theories”.
In response, Advance HE chief executive, Alison Johns, said that the “REC is a well-established framework through which institutions can develop their own plans to create inclusive teaching and research environments and tackle racism. We support and applaud their efforts to do so.”