Government plans to rate universities based on student satisfaction could give free rein to “safe space” mentality, futher stifling free speech on campus, academics have warned.
Peers are backing the academics concerns, and may deliver a cross party revolt in the House of Lords this week over legislation designed to reform higher education which will place student satisfaction at the heart of a new ratings system, the Telegraph has reported.
In recent years a “safe space” and “no platforming” culture has swept across British university campuses. In recent times students have demanded the censorship of such politically disparate figures as the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton and the iconic feminist Germain Greer, among others, while National Union of Students (NUS) leaders adopt Orwellian phrases to defend safe space policy.
But peers have warned that green lighting the legislation could pave the way for a “fantastically dangerous” culture in which university authorities must kowtow to student demands, however illiberal they are.
Baroness Wolf, a professor at King’s College London (KCL), warned: “Universities are increasingly nervous about doing anything that will create overt dissatisfaction among students because they are being told that student satisfaction is key.
“It has had a real effect on the willingness of universities to stand up to student demands which in the past have been removing statues, safe spaces and no-platforming. This whole movement is a direct threat to academic standards and the ability of universities to stand up for freedom of speech.”
She added: “The student satisfaction measure is fantastically dangerous. The way to make students happy is not asking them to do any work and giving them a high grade.
“This will reduce standards and undermine quality. I just think this is totally mad, and destructive of everything universities stand for.”
Two amendments to the bill have been tabled by Baroness Deech, a cross-bench peer who formerly held the highest office dealing with student complaints. She said amendments are “integral to academic freedom”.
“One is requiring universities to protect freedom of speech within the law, so that lecturers on unpopular subjects are not shut down, so that “safe space” and “trigger warnings” do not impede scholarship,” she told The Telegraph.
“The other amendment requires universities to take steps to stop illegal speech, for example invited extremist speakers calling for discrimination and worse against gays, women and Jews, or inciting terrorist activity.”
Provision for both can already be found within existing legislation but is being “widely flouted”, she said.
The Higher Education and Research Bill, advanced by Universities Minister Jo Johnson, will reach committee stage in the Lords on Monday where it is widely expected to be panned.
The bill introduces the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) under which universities will be awarded gold, silver or bronze medals based on a range of factors including student satisfaction, teaching excellence and preparation for the world of work, overturning the current ranking system of ranking institutions based on quality of research output.
Gill Evans, emeritus professor of Medieval Theology at Cambridge University, said the TEF will foster an attitude among university authorities of “bother the kids but we had better give in as we stand to suffer more for fighting it out”. It will lead to a feeling of “if in doubt, give in”, she said.
A Department for Education spokesman said: “We want more young people to have the opportunity to access a high-quality university education, and the measures proposed in the Higher Education and Research Bill are critical to making this possible.
“The new Teaching Excellence Framework will help raise the quality of teaching and almost all English universities, including those in the Russell Group [24 leading UK universities], have confirmed that they intend to take part in the second year.”