The controversy over free speech in universities is riddled with hypocrisy. Simply take a look at the most recent row between the UK Conservative authorities and the College and School Union (UCU), the commerce union representing lecturers and different college workers. All sides claims to be defending educational freedom, however each take a wholly partial, partisan view of what lecturers must be allowed to say.

Final month, Michelle Donelan, secretary of state for science, innovation and know-how, despatched a letter to UK Analysis and Innovation (UKRI) – the nationwide funding company for science and analysis within the UK. In her letter, Donelan requires UKRI’s equality, variety and inclusion (EDI) committee to be shut down, on the grounds that a few of its members had made anti-Israel posts on social media.

These posts, made by lecturers employed by UKRI on X / Twitter, are undoubtedly in poor style. One professor mentioned the federal government’s crackdown on help for Hamas – a proscribed terrorist group – was ‘disturbing’. One other falsely claimed that Israel is an ‘apartheid’ state that’s committing ‘genocide’ in Gaza.

Final week, UKRI complied with Donelan’s calls for and suspended its EDI committee. However the UCU, which represents the people focused in Donelan’s letter, has urged UKRI to push again in opposition to this try and police the social-media posts of workers.

UCU basic secretary Jo Grady argues that Donelan’s intervention is an attack on academic freedom, and a part of a wider ‘right-wing tradition campaign’ on each EDI initiatives and the higher-education sector. She is especially involved about an extensive dossier compiled by the federal government, which seems to have investigated the social-media exercise of UKRI workers, monitoring their help for numerous political subjects corresponding to ‘decolonisation’ and ‘trans rights’.

Grady and the UCU are proper to push again in opposition to this type of sinister state meddling in academia. And Donelan’s calls for for nearer social-media monitoring of UKRI workers ought to definitely be opposed on academic-freedom grounds. UKRI workers ought to have the precise to submit their views on the Israel-Hamas battle, or on every other political trigger.

Satirically, Donelan prefaced her letter to UKRI by stating that ‘educational freedom and free speech are completely sacrosanct’, earlier than instantly launching into an try to manage what these UKRI workers members are allowed to say on social media. What’s extra, solely final yr Donelan mentioned that she believes college must be ‘a spot the place we stay by the phrases… “I disapprove of what you say, however I’ll defend to the dying your proper to say it”’. Policing the social-media posts of lecturers is a humorous solution to go about defending that concept.

However the UCU has no proper to assert to be a defender of educational freedom, both. The UCU rightly calls for that its members be allowed to talk out in opposition to Israel. However this can be a basic case of ‘free speech for me, however not for thee’. For it has adopted a virulently anti-Israel place, by way of its help for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) marketing campaign, which ends up in the union routinely blacklisting audio system who’re both from Israel or who’ve educational hyperlinks with Israeli universities.

It’s also value remembering that this is similar UCU that has spent years main a marketing campaign in opposition to the tutorial freedom of workers and college students who don’t purchase into its view of ‘trans inclusion’. Standing up for trans rights, in response to the UCU, entails opposing single-sex areas, pushing ‘gender-neutral language’ because the norm and opposing all debate on questions round intercourse and gender.

In essentially the most excessive instance, the UCU’s department at Edinburgh College campaigned final yr to forestall the gender-critical documentary, Grownup Human Feminine, from being screened on campus. It additionally tried to No Platform audio system who’re vital of trans ideology. It even despatched letters to its members presenting gender-critical workers as a menace to the wellbeing of scholars. Evidently, these actions should not solely antithetical to educational freedom, but in addition to the aim of a commerce union, which must defend the free-speech rights of its members, not attempt to have them silenced.

It’s significantly wealthy of Grady to criticise Donelan’s division for ‘investigating’ individuals and concepts it disapproves of. Final yr, The Instances discovered that the UCU’s LGBT standing committee plotted to gather data on gender-critical workers in human-resources roles who would possibly pose a barrier to the union’s trans-rights agenda. The UCU denied involvement on this.

The UCU shouldn’t be actually involved about educational freedom in any respect. It simply needs to defend the primacy of woke ideology in increased schooling. Because of the rise of EDI departments and initiatives, workers and college students who query trans ideology, vital race concept or anti-Israel bigotry are sometimes placing themselves immediately at odds with their employers and educators. The UCU has fed this illiberal tradition.

Michelle Donelan is clearly no champion of educational freedom, however neither is the UCU. Each side select to defend free speech solely when it fits them. The lesson right here is to beware the fly-by-night defenders of educational freedom. Free speech is a elementary worth on which academia relies upon. A hypocritical defence of free speech is nearly as good as no defence in any respect.

Jim Butcher is a lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church College.

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