For centuries, university campuses have been, relatively speaking, a haven within capitalist society for free debate and criticism.
A high point, for much of the 20th century, was the right which universities in Latin America won to keep the police off their campuses and have university officials elected by staff and students. That began with the University Reform Movement in Córdoba, in northern Argentina, which opposed a focus on learning by rote, inadequate libraries, poor instruction, and restrictive admission criteria, and spread across the subcontinent.
The student radicalism which spread across much of the world in 1968 started, in 1964-5, with a Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley. The central avenues through campus had become a lively scene, with street stalls and political gatherings; the university authorities tried to clamp down, and were eventually defeated.
Today free debate and criticism on campus is under threat from several angles. The government wants universities to ban speakers from their campuses who would be quite legal elsewhere.
University administrations ban meetings, even without government prompting, when they think they might cause trouble or uproar.
Campus space is increasingly commercialised and franchised-out, and university bosses try to stop student postering, leafleting, and campaigning affecting the “commercial space”.
Student unions are increasingly run by people who think that a spell as student union president will look good on their CV when they apply for a managerial job.
University lecturers’ careers depend on how many articles they get published in “leading” (i.e., in almost all fields, orthodox) journals. Over generations of academic turnover, this produces university departments filled with staff who have been selected by capacity to get wordage into those journals, and who in turn will go on to run those journals, oblivious to critiques or alternative approaches.
This narrows the range of teaching and debate on courses.
Finally, and paradoxically, the shutting-down of debate is sometimes promoted by student activists who consider themselves left-wing. A chief example is the bans on the Socialist Workers Party imposed by Goldsmiths and Edinburgh University student unions, and attempted elsewhere.
The process of narrowing
This excerpt is taken from a report published in 2014 by critical economics students at Manchester University, and sums up how thought has been narrowed within the lecture halls and seminar rooms.
"As little as 15 years ago the Economics Department at Manchester had a considerably wider range of professors who self-identified with different economic paradigms and had very different research agendas.
This led to a far more eclectic undergraduate syllabus with modules such as comparative economic theory, comparative economic systems and alternative perspectives on developing economies being available for students to study. The Economics Department has radically changed in composition in the last 15 years and it is these changes that are the root cause of many of the problems we outlined.
The Research Excellence Framework (REF) and academic journals have the power to define what is and isn’t economics and within that, what is good economics and bad economics. REF determines how much research funding each university gets and is a label of research prowess.
Every four years a panel of leading academic economists grade departments on the basis of individual publications whose academic quality is inferred from the status and ranking of economics journals. The problem is that there are no recognisably heterodox economists on this panel and that the grading is done behind closed doors with only departmental ratings published.
The outcome of the REF rating process is to elevate the neoclassical framework to the standard by which all economics research is judged. Departments and individual lecturers are forced to respond to the definitions of economics set by these bodies...
Academic economists must work with neoclassical assumptions and methodology if they wish to secure academic tenure and advance within the leading economics departments... As nonmainstream Manchester professors have retired from expanding departments they have been replaced by young recruits [who] represent a narrow range of mainstream economists who had been published, or were more likely to be published, in the mainstream American journals (Big 5: AER, Chicago etc).
This homogeneity puts the Department in the position of not having the capability to teach other schools of thought or history of economic thought.
This narrowing process reinforces itself; now many young lecturers and teaching assistants aren’t able to facilitate critical discussions including alternative economic perspectives in tutorials because their economics education has lacked those elements.
This monoculture also makes it easier for professors to believe that their way is the only way to do economics or at least that it is the only valid way, which in turn justifies its status as the only kind of economics taught at our university...
Non-mainstream economists at Manchester have been stripped of their titles as economists and pushed out to peripheral positions in development studies and suchlike while various kinds of heterodox political economy have taken root in the business school, politics, geography and history departments."
UCL votes for free speech
By Omar Raii
In mid-March University College London students’ union students voted (by a close margin) to support freedom of speech and organisation on campus.
The arguments against came not from the right, but from self-defined leftists who argued that it may be necessary from time to time to stop speakers with objectionable views (for example misogynists, supporters of UKIP etc.) from coming on to campus, in order to protect oppressed groups. We replied that freedom of speech is especially important for oppressed groups, who are the most vulnerable when it comes to government censorship.
Already the state and university managements are determined to clamp down on any debate that may lead to rowdiness or controversy. Student unions should not add to the censorious atmosphere by banning speakers or societies.
The motion noted that “there has been a rise in instances of meetings, debates and publications being suppressed on university campuses, whether by campus authorities, the Home Office/police or sometimes by student unions themselves....
“That for freedom of expression to be genuinely established on campus, it must extend to those whose views may be regarded as objectionable....
“That student unions should generally champion free speech and organisation, and advocate their curtailment only in extreme circumstances, such as when speakers incite violence.
“That fascist organising and presence on campus must be opposed and stopped, not because it leads to offensive speech, but because it contributes to violent, organised attacks on students, especially oppressed groups...”
Keeping campuses “clean” and conformist
By Monty Shields
In November 2014, I was promoting the national demonstration for Free Education at Queen Mary University of London.
The posters I put up around campus kept disappearing within hours. Then I was “caught” outside a student café by a member of senior management, who told me that they had been taking down the posters, they wanted to keep the campus looking “fresh” and “clean”, and what I was doing was prohibited.
When postering for a left-wing discussion group, I found that no student is allowed to advertise events anywhere on campus outside the student union. Then, when campaigning for the union elections, I was confronted by a member of senior staff who told me that I was in a “commercial area” where no posters were allowed. I replied that I was exercising my right to freedom of expression. In response, they took the posters down in front of me.
Within the student union, all posters that have not been approved by the unelected administrative staff at the union reception are removed. And posters can only be placed in “designated areas” — a small selection of boards, each capable of holding one A3 poster, in which it is difficult to find free space. Thus, most student societies cannot use posters to advertise their events without breaking the union’s rules.
Earlier this year, I received an email stating that the society I help organise would be punished if we carried on postering in the union café, which is not a designated space.
During the student union elections, the union’s unelected administrative staff reportedly told some students that there would be “repercussions” if they published an article for a student newspaper about the accountability of sabbatical officers.
Not so long ago, university campuses were one of the few places where a colourful, lively diversity of views could be advertised.
We must fight against the marketisation of universities and the conformism of student unions which have driven the shutdown on free expression.