Protest, Free Speech and the Idea of the University

by Priyamvada Gopal

Something out of the ordinary happened in Cambridge this week. In an institution better known for populating than challenging this country’s ruling classes, a sitting Minister of State, David Willetts, was, as indignant news reports put it, ‘prevented from speaking.’ Willetts had been invited by Cambridge’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, to speak to his Idea of the University, an institution he is better known for dismantling than fostering. The man who was promising to ‘put students in the driver’s seat’ by turning them into paying consumers at degree-mills would, appropriately enough, tell us all about it through the auspices of CRASSH.

As Willetts arrived on the podium, a young man stood up and shouted:

Dear David Willetts/ The future does not belong to you./ This is an epistle/ which is addressed to you./ But it is written/ for those who will come after us./ Why?/ Because we do not respect your right/ to occupy the platform this evening./

Each line he read was echoed back by about forty voices, a ‘human mic’, as the ‘epistle’ unfolded over seven long minutes. While a few angry audience members stood up and shouted back, gesticulating angrily, most of the audience—the hall was barely half full—sat and listened, some appalled, others transfixed, to the incantatory j’accuse. Clearly having been told to expect some disruption, Willetts sat down with a slight smile and waited it out. But the protesters were not finished at the end of their recitation. Chanting ‘Willetts, Willetts, Willets, GO GO GO!” the protesters occupied the stage. Within seconds, the Minister of State for Universities and Science disappeared from sight. The event was cancelled by furious organisers.

The reaction was instantaneous and predictable. The protesters had taken a huge public relations risk and the consequences were immediately apparent. Vitriolic denunciations flowed in, most notably from quarters which deem themselves liberal, progressive or even left of centre (whatever that means in the post-New Labour era). A familiar mantra emerged: everybody has the absolute right to free speech in any and every circumstance, even a Minister who normally only has Parliament, newspaper interviews, White Papers, television panel discussions and set-piece speeches to proffer his opinions. We don’t agree with or respect Willetts’s views, they all averred to a don, but the poor chap should’ve been allowed to speak.  It’s been sadly difficult to find anyone who actually argues that Willetts has brilliant and original ideas to share, the usual reason one invites people to speak at universities. Instead, endless moralising diatribes hold that a great opportunity for engagement and change has been lost, that we might even have been able to convince him with our eloquence, sharp analysis and sheer gut-wrenchingly articulate brilliance to steer the Coalition bulldozer away from university walls.

Short of the tenacious but naïve donnish fantasy of imagining that sound argument, rather than vested political and economic interests, will ultimately carry the day, I can’t quite understand what the point of inviting him to speak was. No one can, after all, correctly claim not to have access to Willetts’ shoddy and pulverising ‘idea’ of the university; it’s already been forced down our throats in the form of gargantuan cuts to university budgets and trebled tuition fees that will be unaffordable to the majority. The White Paper’s proposals to marketise education more fully are widely disseminated. And dons, myself included, have had and taken plenty of chances to put their views in print and speak in opposition on radio and television. No one could reasonably argue that views ‘suppressed’ on that day, whether those of Willetts or his fairly small audience, will remain buried. In the measured words of my colleague, Dr Jason Scott-Warren, ‘Willetts has presided over changes that will rapidly result in the suppression of innumerable arguments. He fully deserves not to be heard once in a while.’

Here’s another thing everyone agrees on, the protesters included—and I’ve spoken to them now several times, as much in disagreement with them as in support of some of what they have undertaken. Free speech is a very good thing. Academic freedom must be guarded with our lives, particularly from the vitiation the Coalition’s policies will entail, not least through the requirement that research have an immediate and discernible social and economic ‘impact’ and increased dependence on corporate funding for research. Universities are and must remain spaces for debate and fierce contestation of ideas but to imagine that they are level playing fields where everybody has the same impact is either unforgivably naïve or mendaciously complicit with establishment politics. Nobody denies David Willetts’ right to speak his mind or refuses to listen to him. In fact, we generally have no choice not only to listen to him but to live with the effects of what he thinks as the self-appointed custodian of the ‘real’. The disastrous and ill-planned hike in tuition fees was enacted with no consultation and with the most fragile of mandates. There was no sign of ‘rigorous debate’ preceding the elimination of the teaching block grant, which has changed the face of universities immeasurably for the worse.  Where is the ire of liberal academics about that democratic failure? Really, where is the righteous indignation that ought to be levelled at this disastrous government and its viciously profiteering policies? If the student protesters are to be marginalised for disrupting civic communication, shouldn’t Willetts be pilloried even more severely rather than invited to grace a distinguished podium? Unless, that is, freedom of speech and debate comes with built-in double standards.

The White Paper’s even more destructive plans—Willetts’ ‘Idea of the University’ writ large for all to see—will no doubt be pushed through Parliament despite some hasty and superficial ‘consultation’  with universities who have criticised it fiercely. (Had the event at Cambridge gone ahead, it would have gone down on Willetts’ ‘consultation’ ledger).  Some of its proposals will likely be enacted even without Parliamentary process. These White Paper’s ‘ideas’ come less from the hallowed registers of academic debate than from the several closed door discussions Willetts is known to have had with representatives of the for-profit education sector. Yet academics have responded to these anti-democratic attacks on education with a mere fraction of the condemnation heaped on the heads of the protesters. And, on the whole, they have rolled over and taken what is being dished out to them, whether it is the violation of the Haldane Principle or the closures of economically ‘unproductive’ areas of study.

It is time for progressive academics and others who would like to support the students and who like to think of themselves as in opposition to the assault on universities and in favour of resistance, to ask ourselves what exactly it is we think we should be doing in the face of this history-altering assault on the British University? Do we really think writing thundering broadsides in journals and magazines and chairing panel discussions is going to cut it as far as ‘action’ goes in relation to this contemptuous, indifferent, unrepresentative government? (I speak as someone who writes broadsides and chairs panel discussions). Do we really think that signing petitions to impervious AHRC executives will by itself have any effect? (I was one of the 2000 signatories who signed a call to the AHRC to respect the Haldane Principle by removing the Conservative Party’s ‘Big Society’ mantra as a research focus; a democratic voicing of concern which thus far has yielded precisely nothing). Are we so deluded as to think quiet logic will save the day, particularly with the most anti-intellectual government we have seen in decades? Some quiet deals with good ole boy ministers might well have been cut over the port in the Senior Common Room, with the hoi polloi at a safe distance, an unbreakable Cambridge patrician habit which explains something of this puzzling invitation to an completely uninteresting politician and apparatchik. But to deprecate agitation on the grounds that David Willetts would turn up at Cambridge to engage in genuine debate and go off fortified with good suggestions is nothing short of dangerously arrogant and delusional. Some appear to have forgotten that Willetts is a consummate politician (albeit one who fancies himself something of an intellectual), and it remains unclear to many of us as to exactly why he was invited to ‘debate’ an idea which has already been put into disastrous practice. It’s a bit like popping the question after the honeymoon.

The time has come for us to understand that what took place in Cambridge this past Tuesday --the clear and unambiguous signal from students that the Minister who had done most to destroy higher education and access to learning was not welcome on their campus—was not an attack on free speech but rather a political act, an expression of resistance that is of enormous significance as the country gets ready for a national day of strike action. Already, the Cambridge action has resonated nationally and internationally. It was a message and a warning to a government which pays the barest lip service to democracy, has reduced students to debt-ridden consumers, has put in place repressive anti-protest measures, and thrown a generation of young people out of work. All the self-regarding moralising that is now being thrown around about ‘free speech’ will not save this country’s universities, hospitals, schools and pensions.  Nor will our outrageous apathy, what the great freedom campaigner Frederick Douglass described as ‘the stolid contentment, the listless indifference, the moral death which reigns over many of our people, we who should be all on fire.’ There is no free society or freedom to speak in a society which lacks equality of opportunity, fair wages, decent pensions, free education and decent healthcare. Sort those priorities out first in the face of this government’s freewheeling assault on everything that is decent and humane, and then we can get on with our uninterrupted lectures.

Priyamvada Gopal teaches in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge

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First published: 25 November, 2011

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3 Comments on "Protest, Free Speech and the Idea of the University"

By William Wall, on 25 November 2011 - 18:48 |

One of the many effects of Tory policies in relation to universities will be to silence the academy. I think it highly appropriate therefore that Willetts was silenced. The discourse of ‘free speech for all’ disregards the power relations involved. There is, in reality, no such thing. There is free speech for those who can afford it, and expensive silence for the rest. Well done Cambridge students.

By Leon Sams, on 25 November 2011 - 23:29 |

As a Cambridge student, I agree entirely.

By Cas, on 26 November 2011 - 19:30 |

Priya, you are goddamn amazing and I love you. Thank you for this piece.

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