It’s not ‘wokery’ or snowflakes strangling free expression in universities – it’s the Conservative party
It was recently announced that the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, is due to appoint the UK’s first “free speech tsar” in order to combat the apparent epidemic of cancel culture in England’s universities. At a time when the newspapers are filled with stories of strikes and shortages, and of the most vulnerable people in society having to endure extreme hardship, talk of the “death of free speech” must be like music to the ears of those in power.
For the best part of a decade now, column inches have been filled by claims that freedom of thought and speech is being strangled by “snowflake” students and overzealous academics. Routine annual changes in course materials to freshen up the syllabus are turned into moral panics about white authors being cancelled. Mundane invitation decisions by student societies are treated as if they form the lifeblood of British democracy.
In a recent report into “radical progressive policies” by the thinktank Civitas, everything from the now standard practice of using trigger warnings (an innocuous reminder to students that the information they are about to consume might upset those carrying unprocessed trauma) to engagement with the concept of decolonisation (which springs from the crazy idea that more than 400 years of European imperialism might just have had some impact on the world) are taken as indication of how bad the disease of wokeism has become.
The truth is that what may seem strange and scary about university life to some conservative observers is often just a reflection of the working life of an academic. The use of “trigger warnings” is just one element of a broader concern with students’ mental health, which now constitutes a large part of the pastoral care that we academics do. Growing interest in decolonisation also reflects the changing demographics of the university, with more Black and Asian students now enrolling on courses, challenging academics to ensure that their course materials reflect a broader set of references. Academics, meanwhile, are working themselves into a state of burnout in a job where conditions are worsening year on year.
As trivial as it may sometimes seem, the moral panic surrounding cancel culture and free speech on campus isn’t simply performative. It plays an important role for workers in the sector at a time when they are becoming increasingly militant. More than 70,000 staff at 150 universities are due to go on strike for 18 days in February and March due to a longstanding dispute with their employees – not over free speech, but stagnating pay, workloads and a pension scheme that has been gutted over recent years.
At the same time, the government is putting the finishing touches to a bill that will give new powers to the Office for Students so that the regulator can penalise institutions deemed to be in breach of their obligation to maintain free speech. This creates an incentive for universities to restrain academic activity that they fear might invite the attention of the OfS, increasing already heightened tensions between staff and management.
Academia in England is far from the free space of intellectual exploration that some outsiders consider it to be, and that has nothing to do with free speech. Overwork, micromanagement and endless bureaucratic obligations choke the creativity of academics. The use of short-term contracts on low pay is ubiquitous. Practices of outsourcing have normalised the use of informal, precarious workers across key roles that sustain the daily life of any university. England’s system of higher education was, until recently, the envy of the world. As one of the few legitimately globally leading sectors left in the country in the post-Thatcher period, it stood at the cutting edge of innovative research and teaching practices, drawing in talent, students and money from across the world.
Related: Elite universities aren’t hotbeds of ‘wokery’: our research shows they’re rife with racism and classism | Kalwant Bhopal and Martin Myers
Decades of neoliberal reforms, including cuts to public subsidy, have restructured this system so that it no longer centres on the pursuit of knowledge but on making money, with key decisions determined by the guiding coordinates of debt, competition and speculation. The main disruption to studies across the UK will not come from no-platforming but from the ongoing industrial confrontation between university staff and university management. The prospect of marking boycotts and delayed graduations is now looming over the horizon, and the government is doing nothing to solve this real crisis in universities.
The decision to focus on campus culture wars at a time when the infrastructure of Britain’s higher education system is crumbling makes a kind of sense: this government has no answers to the big structural challenges facing British people in 2023, and so can only try to distract and enrage. It’s is a tactic that is likely to provide diminishing returns, as the cost of living crisis continues to bite. At universities across the country, students and staff are organising against a model of marketised education that exploits both groups. Students are engaging in rent strikes to reduce the eye-watering costs of university accommodation. If they follow their counterparts in the US, campaigns for cancelling student debt could increasingly become the real cancel culture on campuses.
The university is likely to be a political battleground in 2023. But a government desperate to reignite the culture wars may find that, in the face of issues like job cuts, high rents and casualised labour, which stretch far beyond the campus, the battles are no longer being fought on the terrain of their choosing.
Dr Kojo Koram teaches at the School of Law at Birkbeck, University of London, and writes on issues of law, race and empire
Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.