Cameron, Johnson and the ‘Naming and Shaming’ of Universities

Some months ago, I was organising the latest event in the Muslims, Trust and Cultural Dialogue series: part of a research project run by the University of East London in partnership with the Centre for Pakistan at SOAS. It was around the time of the controversy surrounding student Islamic societies at universities supposedly requesting audiences to be segregated by gender at some of their events. Politicians from the major parties queued up to denounce the supposed acquiescence in a creeping extremist agenda.

A few days before the event, as the publicity machine (such as it is) was cranking up, I received a call from someone in the university’s governance and compliance section worriedly asking whether the event was going to be segregated. Since it was a talk on the general philosophical issues around trust that didn’t even mention Muslims, and given that the speaker was the measured and urbane Baroness Onora O’Neill, I was rather nonplussed by the enquiry. Until, that is, it dawned on me that the question was asked because of the title of the project, and was clearly a frightened, kneejerk reaction to the current media and political outcry. My caller was clearly entirely ignorant of the content and nature of our work, and was merely obeying an order to make sure anything going on under the university name with ‘Muslim’ in the title could not come back to bite it. So much for the university space as one of free and fearless debate!

I was reminded of this again by the new tactic, inaugurated last week by David Cameron, of naming and shaming universities who give the floor to radical Islamist speakers. It came at the same time as the Higher Education Minister, Jo Johnson, penned a letter to the National Union of Students urging it to abandon its opposition to the controversial Prevent strategy. (The government is also said to be considering legislation to tighten the rules on extremist speakers on campuses.) In particular, Johnson expresses displeasure at a recent NUS conference motion to oppose the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, and criticism the government’s approach as racist and Islamophobic. While emphasising their belief in debate and academic freedom, Cameron and Johnson are the heralds of a new approach that would narrow the range of that debate. Freedom of speech it appears, like democracy in Middle Eastern countries, is to be propagated only until it throws up results that we do not like.

This latest turn indicates a desire to commandeer the grounds of debate in the name of common sense liberal values. But it also represents a potential shift in the terms of the relationship between government and universities. Of course, despite romantic mythology, universities have never been spaces of complete utopian freedom. In his book Human Rights and Empire, the law professor Costas Douzinas recalls Edward Gibbon’s account of how the foundation of the first European university at Bologna in the twelfth century was the reward for a political ruling by four eminent jurists endorsing the legitimacy of claims by the Emperor Frederick I that his sovereign authority should supersede local legal customs. However, over time a consensus has been established, at least in Britain, that scholarship and debate should be carried on in universities free of direct external political intervention. Douzinas argues that the university ‘is based on the absolute freedom to question publicly … [t]hought is the experience of the unconditional, of asking about everything, including the value of questioning itself as well as the value of truth’. That must logically also mean the space to debate the views of those who would, if the tables were turned, deprive us of the same right: those cartoonish extremists, favoured by the media, who fulminate against western freedoms.

Censorship is advocated in the guise of protecting the vulnerable from radicalisation, and many of us can remember how much growing up we had to do when we first attended university, how open we were to startling, outlandish and downright silly ideas. But the government’s attempts to police the parameters of debate within the university in fact bespeaks a lack of faith in its own vaunted liberalism. Surely the university is a space where extreme views can and should be contested and discredited, their advocates allowed to expose their own stupidity? Simplistic worldviews, which do not so much contest history and politics as reject them outright, ought to be forced into dialogue with them. The university provides the perfect space for this, beyond the bear-pit of parliament and policy made up on the hoof. There ought also to be more faith in the robustness of existing laws and their implementation if hate speech or incitement take place. Yet, Cameron and Johnson, in removing the opportunity for scrutiny of unpalatable views, and – perhaps more importantly – in attacking students for offering critique and resistance to a specific, flawed and controversial policy, do a disservice to the custodians of the very spaces where extremism can best be combated. They show little faith in education and less respect to those undergoing it. Censoring and instrumentalising education for political ends can only ever end badly, in less freedom.

Last Updated on 20 September 2015
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