In October 2020, Gavin Williamson wrote to all university vice-chancellors “requesting” they adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism, and insisting on action before Christmas… or else.
In February the government announced plans to appoint a “free speech champion” whose job will be to ensure freedom of speech and expression is not stifled at UK universities. The role is embedded in the Office for Students (OFS), which would have the power to impose fines on institutions if the OFS find they have suppressed free speech. New legislation introducing these powers will also cover student unions. This seems to be a demagogic attempt to push back against so-called “wokeness”.
Both moves should be opposed.
Workers’ Liberty supported the adoption by the Labour Party of the IHRA “Working Definition” on the grounds that it could serve as a useful educative framework in a context where understanding of modern antisemitism is low. The text is not designed to be a set of rules, and should not be used as a code of conduct or to stifle free speech. In fact the IHRA guidelines have not been used in the Labour Party as a means to mute criticisms of Israel, or as binding codes of conduct against antisemitism. (The Equality and Human Rights Commission report which found Labour guilty of antisemitism based itself on the Equality Act, and did not use the IHRA text).
Since Williamson’s IHRA threat nothing much has happened. But the UCL [University College London] academic board has voted to rescind its adoption of the IHRA definition and replace it with what it considers a more precise definition. That decision came after a Working Group report that the IHRA guidelines conflated antisemitism with criticism of Israel and Palestine. (In our view, they don’t conflate, but, in fairness, this was a detailed, nuanced report.) The Working Group was also justifiably concerned at rising levels of antisemitism, at UCL. We should support UCL’s right to come to its conclusions in this way as a matter of democratic decision-making and academic freedom.
Universities are public institutions. Their policy-making should be both transparent and free from day-to-day political interference by the government of the day.
Whether or not the IHRA guidelines are good enough, or should be adopted, should be a matter of open debate among an academic community and decisions taken should come after debate. University decision-making should also be more democratic, involve greater numbers of both staff and students and representatives from the local community. And the final decision should not be, as it will be at UCL, with a University Council (such bodies tend to be dominated by the “great and good”).
Both new free speech laws and Williamson’s suggestion of imposing the IHRA text will add to complex mixes of already existing policy at universities and add confusion. Universities already have a legal responsibility to uphold freedom of speech. Why the new powers? Universities already have codes of conduct and obligations to uphold equality law. If the IHRA is intended to be used as new code of conduct or equality guidance, which bit of policy will take precedence?
On the IHRA, universal adoption on such an unclear basis may produce a febrile atmosphere where both a backlash against campaigning for Palestinian rights and anti-Zionist witch hunts are possible.
Many Jewish students and staff will want the IHRA text adopted, not least because universities can do much better at tackling bullying, harassment and abuse. We have to campaign for more resources to support students and staff who are victims of abuse. We need clearer and more effective university codes of conducts — ones which allow students and staff to seek redress without recrimination.
There are real problems with free speech at UK universities. They are not as the government defines them. The marketisation of universities has seen the suppression of postering, paper-selling and leafleting, students being subject to surveillance through Prevent, and the use of police against students on campuses.
A broad freedom of speech and organisation for all should be guaranteed, other than for clear-cut fascists and where there is immediately dangerous incitement.
Student unions and activists tend now to argue for administrative bans on reactionary speakers, when a better response is denouncing and organising protests against them. There has been some raising of “no-platforming” from a tactic to a principle of too-wide application.
That has depoliticised student politics. We want political challenges and protests against the views we disagree with to be the norm. Debate from students in all contexts — in lectures and seminars as well — with rules for respectful conduct of debate without fear of recrimination, should always be what we aim for.