BBC research reveals lack of censorship across universities

Recent research conducted by the BBC’s Reality Check facility has revealed a distinct lack of evidence to support the widely purported notion that universities are actively seeking to stifle free speech.

This followed a recent Parliamentary inquiry resulting in the Office for Students threatening to fine universities for failures to uphold the principles and tenets of free speech, written in guidelines being drawn up by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

In the past year or so, a number of stories have made the rounds both in the press and on social media regarding alleged infringements on free speech at higher education institutions across the country. Commenting on the issues at the end of last year, Jo Johnson, the then Universities Minister, claimed that books were being removed from libraries thus ‘undermining the principle of free speech’.

BBC Reality Check decided to look into this and discovered that the books in question, authored by holocaust denier David Irving, had not been banned, but rather just moved from the history sections of two universities.

A subsequent set of Freedom of Information requests delivered to every UK university regarding changes to courses, books being removed from libraries and speakers being cancelled elicited 120 responses. According to the data amassed by the BBC, since 2010 there have been:

  • Seven student complaints about course content being in some way offensive or inappropriate – four have resulted in action being taken
  • Six occasions on which universities cancelled speakers as a result of complaints
  • No instances of books being removed or banned

In light of there being over two million students currently studying at the UK’s 136 universities, these numbers of complaints and grievances in accordance to the data at hand seem to be astonishingly low. Cases requiring action from an institution or union seem to be few and far between, at least according to the recorded statistics.

Speaking on this, head of Universities UK, Alistair Jarvis said: ‘Universities host hundreds, if not thousands, of events each year, among a student population of over two million. The vast majority of these events pass without incident.’

However, in a follow up article by Rachel Schraer and Ben Butcher it is argued that an ‘absence of evidence does not equal evidence of absence’, meaning that the current statistics regarding issues of free speech on university campuses might not be comprehensive enough to draw any meaningful conclusions from.

It is according to Simon Perfect, a researcher for the think tank Theos, ‘trying to prove a negative’. We can quantify the numbers of complaints after the fact, but how do we measure the number of guests that were never invited in the first place, or the number of changes made to lectures before they were ever actually seen by students?

Universities facing continued accusations of grade inflation – Jamie Hose

More than a quarter of students now graduate with a first-class degree, a fact which some have suggested could be the result of universities ‘marking up’ students. This has led to the government suggesting that, in future, universities could be penalised if they award too many top grades.

Concrete reported last year that firsts at UEA were ‘on the rise’ as an indication of academic success, with over a third of students graduating the 2016/17 academic year with a first-class degree.

However, Universities Minister Sam Gyimah has stated concerns that ‘value of [British] degrees’ and the prestigious reputation of British universities is being ‘threatened by grade inflation.’

Figures released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency have shown that 26 percent of students now graduate with a first, up from 18 percent in 2013, and a sharp increase from only eight percent in the 1980s.

Whilst universities are their own degree-awarding bodies, the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) could be used to discourage lower standards of marking, through the gold, silver and bronze ranking system.

However, the claim that university standards of marking are dropping has been disputed by some students and academics. UEA’s Pro-Vice Chancellor Academic, Neil Ward, spoke to Concrete on the matter, explaining that ‘too little consideration is given to the fact that, certainly at UEA, university teaching has been heavily invested in, teaching has improved, and students now work much harder than they did in the past.’

He noted the importance of the increasingly competitive jobs market and rising costs of higher education as additional factors, as well as placing emphasis on the number of initiatives UEA have put in place to support its students’ educational development.

Namely, an ‘extra £20 million a year in teaching staff’ and an increase in ‘lecturer numbers by around 400 over the past decade, peer-assisted and interactive digital learning, and opening our library 24/7 for 365 days a year.’

He concluded that ‘The tenor of the current debate does a disservice both to today’s UEA students who are engaged with their studies and are working very hard for their success, and also to all our staff who are also doing their utmost to see their students’ progress.’

Research in 2014 by Lancaster University did find a link between rising degree standards and the rising quality of intakes, as shown by A-Level grades. A rise in the adoption of Pre-U qualifications as opposed to A-Levels (particularly in private schools) has also been cited as a possible reason, as Pre-U grades are more likely to result in obtaining an A*-A grade than traditional A-Level examinations.

The only sign of ‘leniency’ in university marking standards has been found in the top universities, which researchers found were eight percent more likely to give out higher degrees than they comparatively would have in 2005, after accounting for improved intakes.

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Sean Bennett

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September 2021
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