London universities force staff to agree with controversial points of view.

Four prominent London universities have Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity training courses which misstate the law and force their staff to affirm controversial points of view.  

CAF has seen Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity (EDI) training courses, and spoken to academics who have been forced to take them, from Queen Mary University of London, King’s College London, University College London, and Imperial College London. All four courses violate freedom of thought, by compelling staff to assent to claims they may reject.  

Queen Mary University of London 

Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) has a training course titled “Challenging unconscious bias”. The course is mandatory for all academic staff and must be retaken and “passed” every two years. In order to pass the test, staff must answer a series of questions and score at least 80%. One question asks staff whether they agree that “The Implicit Association Test is used by psychologists to study unconscious bias”. The “correct” answer is “Yes”. The suggestion that the Implicit Association Test (IAT) is a well-established scientific method is further underlined by the recommendation that course participants themselves take an IAT. 

In fact, IATs are highly controversial among psychologists. Multiple papers published in prominent academic journals have found that “IATs are poor predictors” of bias. By requiring agreement with the statement that “the Implicit Association Test is used by psychologists to study unconscious bias”, QMUL forces its staff to affirm a view that many of them will wish to reject. 

Another question asks whether “making assumptions about people based simply on stereotypes is a useful ‘shortcut’ for thinking, and doesn’t indicate unconscious bias”. (Correct answer: “no”.) A third asks staff whether they should “keep quiet when other people behave in a biased way, and concentrate on instead on being unbiased themselves”. (Again, correct answer: “no”.) Both answers are debatable. Many psychologists have argued that stereotypes function as useful heuristics, and the decision whether to intervene to correct other people’s biases is one that academics might want to make for themselves.  

King’s College London 

King’s College London (KCL) has a course entitled “Introduction to Equality, Diversity & Inclusion”. In 2023, academics were required to have taken a previous version of the course in order to be considered for promotion in 2024. The updated course presents as matters of fact many highly controversial views, including for instance that consideration of “intersectionality” is “crucial” to creating “a diverse and inclusive culture”. Intersectionality – defined as the idea that people have multiple overlapping identities which are “always present”, and which “cannot be separated” – is strongly contested. The course goes on to assert under the heading “Information” that “You cannot simply add and subtract privileges and prejudices people face. There is no score for how people experience the world”. This appears to deny that people can be the victims of greater or lesser degrees of prejudice – again, a controversial official viewpoint. At the end of the course, staff must answer questions, and score at least 80% to “pass”. One question asks staff whether “When people feel they belong at work, they experience more significant meaning, satisfaction, and stability and, as a result, are more productive.” The “correct” answer is “True”. As in the case of QMUL, this is a claim which staff might reasonably agree or disagree with, but which they are forced to affirm. 

The course also misstates the law when it claims that “harassment is behaviour that makes someone feel intimated or offended”. It entirely omits the “reasonableness test”: for behaviour to count as harassment, it must be “reasonable“ for it to have the effect of “creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment” (Equality Act, Section 26, (4)). The mere fact that someone finds a behaviour offensive is not sufficient for that behaviour to constitute harassment. By omitting the reasonableness test, KCL presents the question of whether an action constitutes harassment as wholly subjective. CAF has previously reported on a similar case at the University of Birmingham.  

University College London 

University College London (UCL) has a course titled “Introducing Equality, Diversity and Inclusion”. Completing the course is mandatory for all UCL academic staff. The course makes multiple controversial assertions. These include the statement that the “Medical Model of disability”, which defines disability as an intrinsic feature of the disabled person, rather than a function of their treatment by others, “has created inaccurate assumptions about individuals’ competence that people are trying to eradicate.” The course goes on to state that “At UCL, we champion the Social Model [of disability]”. The “we” makes it clear that this is not just a description, but a disguised injunction. Compare the nursery school teacher who declares to the class that “we sit nice and quietly while the teacher speaks”.  

Throughout the training, the first-person plural is used as cover for numerous other assertions about what staff at UCL should and shouldn’t do, which go well beyond basic academic requirements. For instance: “At UCL, we pride ourselves on being disruptive thinkers. We champion progressive attitudes and we promote change”. In order to complete the training, staff must declare their “understanding of the content”. “Understand” is often used as a “factive” verb: to state that one understands that Napoleon was born in 1769 is to state that Napoleon was born in 1769. Thus, the requirement to declare “understanding” of the content comes very close to a requirement for all staff to declare the content true, and to affirm the value judgements. 

Imperial College London 

Imperial College London has a series of mandatory training courses on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. CAF has spoken to an academic at Imperial who has shared details of these courses. One faculty Dean is reported to have stated that he would not approve anyone for promotion who had not completed all the courses. Again, Imperial takes official views on multiple topics throughout the courses stating, for instance, that sex is a “assigned at birth” rather than observed, and that “Black” should be capitalised, but not “white” (e.g. “the barriers facing a Black lesbian could be a very different experience to that of a white lesbian”). As at other universities, staff are presented with a series of questions, and required to answer 60% “correctly” in order to complete the training. One question asked is “How do we decide if certain behaviour is harassment?” The possible answers are: 

  • Whether it causes offence to the person experiencing behaviour 
  • The Human Resources department will make the decision 
  • Whether the person meant to cause offence 
  • A senior manager will decide 

It appears that the “correct” answer is the first: “Whether it causes offence to the person experiencing behaviour”. As at King’s, this omits the objective “reasonableness test”, making whether or not a behaviour is harassment entirely subjective.  

Imperial goes on to state that it will take a “zero tolerance” approach to any refusal to use an individual’s preferred pronouns. CAF has shown in previous reports that such a policy is in breach of the Equality Act and the Higher Education Freedom of Speech Act. As barrister Dr Anna Loutfi writes, “Any document that advises or instructs individuals that they have made a “mistake” in using the “wrong” pronoun and advises or directs them “correct” their “mistake” (apologise etc… ) is compelled speech and clearly discriminates against all holders of GC beliefs”.  

When universities take official views, e.g. on Implicit Association Tests, disability, and gender, they create a chilling effect for anyone who might wish to form their own views on these topics – including those who might come to agree with the university’s position. When these views are presented as a part of a mandatory “training” course, they amount to indoctrination. In the opinion of CAF, requiring staff to affirm these views by “correctly” answering training questions constitutes compelled speech.  

Compelled speech is contrary to UK law. The latest OfS guidance on freedom of speech states that it is illegal for universities to “require training or induction that imposes a requirement to endorse any controversial viewpoint or value judgement.” Repeated misstatements of the law on harassment are also especially egregious – as these misstated definitions of harassment are often used in attempts to restrict speech. See, for example, CAF’s recent interview with Robert Ivinson, who was hauled before a disciplinary hearing and subsequently convicted of harassment of by his university after saying, when alone in his room, that “veganism is wrong” and “gender fluidity is stupid”. These Equality, Diversity and Inclusion training courses multiply violate academic freedom. They must be removed or changed.