Swansea University grudgingly complies with the law

Swansea University has allowed a gender critical event to go ahead on campus, while publicly stating that such events have a “negative impact” on staff and students. 

On the 1st July, an event titled ‘Sex, Discrimination and the Equality Act’ will take place at Swansea University’s Taliesin Arts Centre. Speaking at the event will be Professor Jo Phoenix, Maya Forstater and Helen Joyce. All are prominent gender critical feminists – they believe that sex is a biological fact and cannot be changed. With Akua Reindorf KC, a specialist barrister in the field, they will discuss the question ‘If any man can ‘be’ a woman, or any woman a man, what use is the Equality Act 2010 in preventing sex discrimination?’”.

Swansea University has issued a statement about the event, claiming that previous events with similar (gender critical) content have had a “negative impact”. The phrase “similar events” appears to refer to a talk given by Phoenix and other gender critical speakers at the Taliesin Centre in March 2023 on the subject of “Silencing Women”. There were vigorous calls and petitions to cancel this talk.  

The university stresses that the discussion of gender critical views will “distress” members of the university. It does not mention the harassment that gender critical feminists, including some of the panellists themselves, have suffered. Nor does it mention that gender critical views are a protected characteristic under the Equality Act and that they constitute one position in an important academic and public debate. 

Phoenix notes that a similarly one-sided statement by the Open University contributed significantly to the Open University being found liable for harassing her on the basis her gender critical beliefs. She argues that Swansea’s statement creates a hostile environment for those with gender critical beliefs, including staff and students at the university, and constitutes harassment. 

The university’s statement fails to mention that academic freedom requires that the event is allowed to go ahead – except in one grudging sentence referring to the university’s legal obligations: 

We do not want our colleagues, students, or the wider community to experience distress or upset. However, the University confirms that it has accepted this hire in adherence with its legal duty of ensuring freedom of expression and freedom of speech. 

In other words, Swansea University would gladly cancel the event and is only prevented from doing so by its legal obligations. Academic freedom, it would seem, is not a value which it has at heart. 

Legal protection for academic freedom has recently been substantially strengthened by the Higher Education Act 2023 (which does not however apply to Wales) and, with respect to gender critical beliefs, by series of legal judgements. This creates a new temptation for university administrators, when faced with illiberal demands, to shelter behind their legal obligations. This course of avoiding confrontation would, unfortunately, be consistent with the “culture of fear” which Phoenix’s tribunal found existed at the Open University. An similar course of action was recently taken by the Royal College of General Practitioners.  

Now that more robust protection has been achieved in law, a significant task is to ensure that universities such as Swansea take full responsibility for protecting academic freedom themselves. The law will provide protection against abuses. It will not, on its own, create a culture of free inquiry.