Government hypocrisy, it seems, is at an all time high as the year draws to a close. This week, with seemingly no sense of irony, higher education minister Jo Johnson announced that a new body, the Office for Students, will from April 2018 fine universities for refusing to host certain controversial speakers, while at the same time enforce the Prevent duty.

Since the Prevent duty already limits free speech by “disrupting” organisations and individuals in campuses under broad and malleable definitions of “extremism” that are discriminatory, we can only conclude that Johnson’s moves are a further attempt by the government to support ‘controversial’ speakers that feed its narratives, while at the same time clamping down on those who do not, under PREVENT.

When it comes to “stifling dissent”, Johnson is adept. In 2015, using his position of authority to negatively frame the National Union of Students (NUS), he asked the NUS to drop opposition to PREVENT.

All of this is taking place behind the illusion of protecting free speech, when in fact, through this duplicitous approach, the government is really becoming the sole arbiter of ‘free speech’. This political corruption feeds the government’s modified ‘muscular liberalism’. Not only this, but the moves will securitise education by streamlining by law what can and cannot be said on campuses, and by whom, according to this purported ‘liberal’ agenda.

This once again illustrates the state’s hypocritical double standards: ‘free speech’ for controversial speakers deemed palatable to the state agenda, PREVENT for all those who do not, with particular focus on Muslims.

PREVENT is toxic and has led to a corrupt environment

But it is not only Muslims that are affected. The involvement of the state within the fabric of universities deeply undermines the academic environment. It is widely acknowledged that PREVENT results in “confusion in the staffroom and suspicion in the classroom”. Now the deceptively named Office for Students (OfS) will add to this mess.

The OfS was set up by Johnson and Education secretary Justine Greening under the Department for Education. Justine Greening is an alumni the Conservative think-tank Bow Group, having formerly served its council. Pertinently, its senior patron includes the neoconservative philosopher Roger Scruton.

Unsurprisingly, Scruton is also listed as a Policy Council Member for Murray’s Henry Jackson Society – the notorious, hate-funded neoconservative think-tank that has influenced the British counter-extremism strategy.

With these links, the government has been encroaching on academic expression and chasing ghosts in it’s campaign to quell voices of dissent. The warnings of 360 academics about the consequences of state intervention in the academic environment are being realised today.

This overarching effect has also given air to alarming developments revealed through individual cases.  In the case of Salman Butt vs Downing Street, CAGE published how court proceedings revealed that the government is fed data by the far-right Henry Jackson Society on individuals and organisations it deems “extremist” on campuses. This data is used as court evidence and has further bolstered a warped and neo-conservative definition of “extremism”, while criminalising dissent.

This development alone highlights the gross incompetence of this government and the grave error in providing it with any oversight in defining or protecting ‘free speech’.

How the state uses red herrings to drive their neo-conservative agenda

The enforcement of an aggressive neo-conservative agenda is often done through the sweeping application of the anti-Semitism label. Recently, hundreds of academics claimed that free speech on Israel is being suppressed by individuals and groups who deliberately seek to conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

It is no wonder then that pro-Palestine groups are among the highest referrals from Universities to PREVENT. In fact, the anti-Semitism threat has been extended to any opposition against Israel and support for Palestinian rights, despite the fact that there are many Jewish supporters for these causes.

The appropriation of the anti-Semitic label for political ends is deeply cynical and offensive. However, the utilisation of the term under PREVENT shows how far the government will go to employ red herrings in order to control spaces where students organise and attempt to take action against injustice.

The students on campus are not the threat to free speech. This threat emanates through the corridors of power by using regulators like the OfS to push an ideological agenda rather than protect student rights. Given this trend it is difficult envisage OfS becoming overtly concerned with genuine student issues such as student debts, funding, finance and the pervading rape culture.

Students and broader society should not be fooled by Johnson’s words claiming that “government [is simply] playing its part in actively creating the conditions necessary for our universities to serve as the vibrant free-trading marketplaces for ideas that we need them to be.”

On the contrary, campuses are now even more inhibited by incessant state overreach. PREVENT intends to debilitate any capacity for student organising and dissent within campuses, while this new announcement by Johnson will allow ideologues who are friendly to the state programme to speak unchallenged at universities.


CC image courtesy of EuroScience OpenForum on Flickr

(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)