Academic Freedom ‘In Crisis’ and Cancel Culture Endemic in UK Universities: Report

Academic Freedom ‘In Crisis’ and Cancel Culture Endemic in UK Universities: Report
File photo of sheet of paper in a typewriter showing the words 'Freedom of Speech'. (Markus Winkler/Unsplash)
Mary Clark

Authoritarianism, political discrimination, and self-censorship are rife in British universities and have thrown academic freedom into a crisis of cancel culture, a landmark study has revealed.

The discrimination, mainly experienced by conservative academics, manifests as “hard authoritarianism,” and involves “no-platforming, dismissal campaigns, social media mob attacks, open letters … formal complaints, and disciplinary action,” according to the research from the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology (CSPI).

It is mainly perpetrated by “a subgroup of illiberal far-left activist staff and students,” said the study, titled “Academic Freedom in Crisis: Punishment, Political Discrimination, and Self-Censorship, which also covers the United States and Canada.

The research, the first of its kind looking at professors and lecturers as well as Ph.D. and masters' students found that “soft authoritarianism,” is also at work in universities.

This type of discrimination affects “hiring, promotion, grant applications, publishing, the allocation of teaching and research tasks, workplace civility, and social inclusion,” the study found.

In grant applications, for example, it showed that political bias means that academics who are openly conservative face “an at least 80 [percent] chance of being discriminated against on a four-person panel chosen at random.”

'Political Discrimination Against Conservatives'

It also showed that “Political discrimination against conservatives and other intellectual minorities … implicates between a third and a half of academics,” with most who are right-leaning saying they "experience a hostile climate in their departments and that they self-censor in their teaching and research.”

This has a “powerful chilling effect,” and stifles diverse dialogue, Eric Kaufmann, professor of politics at Birkbeck College, University of London, and the report author told The Epoch Times.

“A few no platformings is a problem, but it's more of a symptom of what's going on below which is a much more widespread issue, which is the self-censorship,” he said.

“What that does, is it shuts down views that challenge orthodoxy—whether that's research, whether that's in the classroom—and that simply makes the university not function as effectively,” he added.

He said that perpetrators of cancel culture often say that out of the 100,000 academics in Britain, a few no platformings and dismissals from posts are not serious.

But one in three conservative academics and Ph.D. students have “either been disciplined or threatened with discipline in their university,” Kaufmann explained.

“That cannot be discounted as a few events,” he said.

His report, which brings together eight surveys, uses whether UK academics would employ a Brexit supporter as an indicator of political discrimination.

Around a third said they would not employ a Brexiteer.

'Significant Level of Prejudice'

“That’s a significant level of prejudice,” Kaufmann said.

“If we saw even anything remotely approaching that on race and gender that would be an absolute scandal,” he added.

“So, we’ve got a very large scale of political discrimination operating,” he said, with 75 percent of academics working in the social sciences and humanities in Britain saying their department is “a hostile climate for their beliefs.”

It is not only academics on the left that discriminate against the right, he said.

Those on the right also discriminate against those on the left at roughly the same rate.

But in UK universities the right is outnumbered by around nine to one by the left, resulting in a much higher rate of discrimination against right-leaning academics.

“The critical mass is so skewed that the discrimination has to flow basically one way,” he said.

Kaufmann said the “good news” in his report is that only around 10 percent of academics would proactively support the dismissal of someone who held a dissenting view on a controversial issue.

However, around 50 percent did not say they would oppose it either.

This creates “a permissive climate for cancel culture,” which disincentivizes conservatives from academic careers and creates an anti-diverse academic “mono-culture,” Kaufmann said.

A key report finding is the propensity of younger academics to discriminate against dissenting views compared to older academics.

“It’s not that the young are more left-wing, but they are more intolerant left-wing," Kaufmann said.

Over issues of race, gender, and sexuality, the tolerance of the younger generation has declined, he said, and compared to older people they are more likely to favor the “emotional safety” of "historically marginalized groups that you can't offend" over protecting free speech.

This “does portend reduced levels of tolerance in the academy going forward,” he said.

Universities 'Bending the Law'

Last month the UK announced proposals to strengthen free speech and academic freedom in higher education.

Kaufmann welcomed the government plans.

“I think these are incredibly important and world leading measures and I think this is a long overdue and very brave move,” he said.

“Essentially the law protects academic freedom, and it doesn't protect emotional safety,” he said.

“Universities have been essentially bending the law,” he said.

Rather than wait for people who have been wronged to have to sue universities, the academic freedom champions the measures will create, Kaufmann said, will proactively monitor and sanction non-compliant universities.

The champions will “get at the chilling effect [of discrimination] because people will know … that their universities cannot move in response to activist pressure.”

Kaufmann said that enforcement of the measures in concrete situations will be key but was optimistic that if taken seriously they would work against a “constant pressure coming from activists to shut down legally protected speech, academic freedom.”

“It's very, very, critical,” he said.

“Nothing like this exists in the U.S. or Canada or Australia … it is a model to watch,” he added.