Joanna Williams taught in schools, further and higher education for over twenty years. Most recently, she was Senior Lecturer in Higher Education at the University of Kent. Joanna is the author of Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity, Confronting the Fear of Knowledge (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) and Consuming Higher Education, Why Learning Can’t Be Bought (Bloomsbury, 2012). She co-edited Why Academic Freedom Matters (Civitas, 2016).
Laura Perrins: Tell me about the new book you are co-editor of, Why Academic Freedom Matters, published by Civitas?
Joanna Williams: Academic freedom is a huge issue at the moment. Every day new stories emerge about students calling for a song, a newspaper or a fancy dress costume to be banned from campus. Some students demand trigger warnings to notify them of course material that might make them feel uncomfortable; they ask for microaggressions to be policed and for the campus to be turned into a safe space. This can create a climate hostile to academic freedom.
But academic freedom is not just threatened by students. There are also government and institutional policies that restrict academic freedom too. Some of these might be quite explicit, such as the Prevent Strategy, which places an onus on academics to monitor students and vet external speakers. Other policies threaten academic freedom in a more subtle but equally as corrosive a way. For example, the Research Excellence Framework, the national system for allocating research funds to universities, has a huge impact in dictating the type of research academics undertake. Likewise, the emphasis placed upon league tables and the National Student Survey pushes lecturers into privileging student satisfaction above all else.
The aim of Why Academic Freedom Matters is to explore all the different ways in which academic freedom is threatened today. Along with my colleague, Cheryl Hudson, we wanted to bring some more voices into the debate so people working across a range of disciplines and at different stages in their academic careers could explain what they see as the challenges in defending academic freedom today and, most importantly, why they think this freedom still matters.
LP: The truth is Joanna, you are a white, middle-class woman probably living in suburbia who knows nothing about the oppression these students face on a daily basis. They need their safe spaces and cuddly toys otherwise the university experience will traumatise them for life?
JW: Sadly, increasing numbers of students do see themselves as somehow uniquely vulnerable, either because they perceive the rough and tumble of everyday life as a threat to their mental health or because they think their ‘identity group’ is under-represented in higher education and this makes university life more difficult for them. A recent NUS survey suggested that 80 per cent of students have concerns about their mental health.
I think it is important that we ask ourselves why today’s students see themselves as so fragile they need protecting from each other and protecting from intellectual debate. Unfortunately, many youngsters arrive at university nowadays without having had the same experiences that young people used to have. For example, it is now routine for parents to accompany their teenagers on university open days. But it is not just parents that are over-protective. At school, children are taught to find teachers and counsellors rather than working problems with friendships out for themselves.
Children assimilate a language of mental illness from a very young age – this is a vocabulary they do not take on board spontaneously but pick up from the adults they come into contact with. When students arrive at university they are not encouraged to grow up but are instead taught by counsellors, advisors and administrators that student life is stressful. This view is often supported by some academics, who are happy to provide trigger warnings and are rushing to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum – presumably these people think black students can only learn about people who look like them.
To me, this view is patronising and racist. So I think students need to be taken to task for turning higher education into a safe space – but we mustn’t let teachers, lecturers and all the other people who have made careers out of telling students they are vulnerable, off the hook.
LP: To me, these students seem full of contradictions. They will do anything to get into university, including plunging themselves into debt, but then when they arrive, they want to change everything and demand trigger warnings on the very degrees they have fought to get into. What is with that?
JW: In the minds of some students this is not a contradiction at all – it makes perfect sense. I think some students think that as they have paid (or will pay) so much money then why should they put up with anything that makes them feel uncomfortable. If they are customers, then surely the customer is always right? Unfortunately for these students, learning only occurs through effort – and this means being pushed outside your comfort zone. Turning university into a cross between a nursery and a holiday camp may make it emotionally and intellectually safe but it stops students learning anything.
LP: Again, on students, I needed a safe space of my own when I heard that Oxford was including trigger warnings on criminal law courses to protect students from distressing material on sexual offences.
Will they need a hug and safe space when dealing with clients or victims if they ever go to the criminal bar (although, in fairness, most will go to the City)?
JW: I always used to contrast ‘the real world’ with campus life and think that students would get a shock when they left university. More and more though I think students keep the ‘safe space’ idea once they have graduated – and this matches a more censorious climate in society in general. So, for example, we saw last year how the barrister Charlotte Proudman dealt with a LinkedIn contact telling her she looked ‘stunning’ – her outrage suggested her perception that she has her own personal safe-space bubble, free from any unwanted interaction.
Similarly, in Nottingham, the police will now investigate anyone accused of misogyny – the whole county seems to be a safe space. Theresa May has recently criticised university safe space policies, but as Home Secretary, she ‘no-platformed’ Islamic preachers, rappers and ‘pick-up artists’ from the country. The only possible assumption is that the general public cannot cope with hearing these people speak without somehow becoming terrorists or rapists. In effect, May turned the entire nation into a safe space. So, unfortunately, I do not think today’s students will get a shock when they leave university – instead they will find the safety continues.
LP: What do you think are the causes of all this? I think these demands are the ultimate form of privilege. To take 3 or 4 years out of your adult life, devote it to study and then say it is all too scary and bill the taxpayer at the end – now that is some mighty, fine privilege right there?
JW: I do think that many young people nowadays have a well-developed sense of entitlement! But again, I think we have to ask ourselves why this is the case. We need to look at the broader cultural trends in society and especially in education. For many years now, school has taught young people that education is all about them. There is an obsession with relevance on the one hand and with instrumentalism on the other. The idea that students should learn something completely challenging and irrelevant is seen as almost akin to child abuse.
Parents withdrew their children from school and announced that they were ‘on strike’ in protest at difficult and obscure SATS tests. Learning becomes reduced to a few hoops to jump through and some rules to follow rather than rigorous and independent intellectual struggle. If, as a society, we collectively shield young people from all risks and challenges and teach them that they are the centre of the universe, that everything revolves around their immediate needs, we should not be surprised when students carry on with this sense of entitlement at university. And when they get there these ideas are reinforced – it is similarly all about them.
LP: How do we stop it? Ultimately the oxygen for all this is funding. I predict in 10-20 years’ time, a massive default on these student loans – so many graduates will not be earning enough to pay them back. The universities do not want to rock the boat because they want bums on seats to pay salaries so have an incentive to bow to these ludicrous demands. The taxpayer should not be funding this. What do you think?
JW: It is about more than funding. I think we cannot properly fight for either free speech or a challenging education while we keep the idea that children and young people are fragile and especially vulnerable to threats to their mental wellbeing. I think this is where we need to start – by not telling children they are mentally ill all the time. We need to stop treating children like they are made of glass and in need of constant supervision.
When they get to university we need to let them have more independence – importantly this must mean the freedom to make mistakes. We need to stop redefining normal adolescent feelings as mental illness and we need to stop infantilising students by giving them patronising consent classes and alcohol guidance.
(Image: Phil John)