Election day: what do the parties say about academic freedom?

The Committee for Academic Freedom has reviewed the manifesto commitments of the seven main political parties in relation to academic freedom. A summary of the findings is below: 

Conservative Party 

The Conservative Party manifesto is available here. The manifesto states “The Conservative Party is a strong defender of freedom of speech”, adding “we were proud to deliver the Freedom of Speech Act to protect free speech and open debate in our universities”. CAF believes that this act is indeed likely to offer significant protection of academic freedom when it comes into force on the 1st August.  

The Conservative Party’s commitment to free speech has not been consistent, however. In October 2020, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson ordered universities to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism and threatened to cut funding for universities which did not comply. As CAF has reported, the IHRA definition is vague, risks conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism, and threatens the freedom of academics and students to criticise Israel without punishment. The Conservative Party also introduced policies banning any academic who “criticises government officials and policy” from speaking at government events. On two further occasions, Conservative Party ministers have pressured universities and the main UK academic funding body, undermining the culture of free inquiry and academic freedom. 

Green Party 

The Green Party manifesto is available here. It does not mention academic freedom and or freedom of speech. However, it does state that “Marketisation has been disastrous for Higher Education, changing the relationships between students and academic faculty” and that the party would “fully fund every higher education student”. CAF would add that the marketisation of university education has damaged academic freedom specifically. It has led to a change of norms whereby students are seen as customers and the fundamental aim of university teaching is satisfaction, not education. University administrators are incentivised to censor academics and students who threaten to damage the university’s “brand image”. See CAF’s interview with Michelle Shipworth for an example. See also CAF’s launch speech by Kathleen Stock for further discussion of the illiberalising effects of marketisation.  

Labour Party 

The Labour Party manifesto is available here. It does not mention freedom of speech or academic freedom. However, the manifesto does state that “Higher Education is in crisis” and that Labour will introduce a new “comprehensive strategy for post-16 education” with the aim of “reforming” higher education. Two specific objectives include “strengthening regulation” and “raising teaching standards”. These reforms must not – inadvertently or otherwise – undermine academic freedom or freedom of speech. The reference to “raising teaching standards” suggests that Labour may have in view current assessment measures, including the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Reform of the REF is long overdue. In a recent UCU survey, 82% of respondents disagreed with the claim that the REF and similar schemes had increased academic freedom.  

Liberal Democrats 

The Liberal Democrats manifesto is available here. It includes a commitment to “defend hard-won British rights and freedoms… including… free expression”. However, the only action proposed to protect freedom of speech is the introduction of “a Digital Bill of Rights to protect everyone’s rights online”. The manifesto also supports new legislation to ensure “privacy, quality, diversity and choice” in the media, and sees a leading role for the government in “educating all generations in tackling the impact of fake news”. It announces plans to extend hate crime legislation, giving “police and prosecutors the resources and training they need to prevent and prosecute all hate crimes while supporting survivors.”

These proposals do not bode well. Some regulation may be necessary to secure freedom of speech, for instance, to prevent the use of the “heckler’s veto”. However, the natural tendency of regulation is to restrict speech, particularly when it aims to influence the “quality” of speech. CAF applauds the Liberal Democrat’s stated commitment to “free expression” but is wary of the party’s proposed measures to secure it. 

Plaid Cymru  

The Plaid Cymru manifesto is available here. In it, Plaid Cymru states that “our ambition remains to make University education free again for all”. CAF believes that such a policy might increase academic freedom, insofar as it reduces commercial pressures on universities, though whether it is affordable is of course a further question. See our comment on the Green Party. 

Reform UK 

The Reform UK “contract with the people” is available here. In it, Reform pledges to “cut funding to universities that undermine free speech”. CAF applauds this strong stated commitment to freedom of speech, but doubts whether cutting funding to universities is the appropriate means of securing it. It is already the case that from the 1st August, under the Higher Education Act, the Office for Students will be able to fine universities which fail to secure freedom of speech within the law. The contract’s claim that the Higher Education Act is “toothless” is baseless. See CAF reports on the Act here, here, and here.  

Reform also promises, if elected, to introduce a “Comprehensive Free Speech Bill”. The purpose of the bill would be to stop “politically correct ideology” and “left wing hate mobs”. But freedom of speech includes freedom to espouse “politically correct ideology”. Moreover, in a free country, individuals have a right to hate whomever they like without legal sanction – provided that the expression of hatred does not amount, for instance, to abuse or harassment. It appears that Reform’s stated commitment to freedom of speech is at best limited, and at worst a false front for censoring views with which Reform disagrees. 

Scottish National Party 

The manifesto of the Scottish National Party is available here. It makes no reference to freedom of speech or academic freedom, nor to any policies which CAF believe could impact on academic freedom or freedom of expression.