Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Written evidence submitted by Professor Ross Anderson FRS FREng, Professor of Security Engineering at Cambridge University and Edinburgh University (HEFSB08)

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Personal submission by Prof Ross Anderson FRS FREng

The government’s readiness to defend academic freedom is speech is welcome. However there is one small flaw in the bill, which I would respectfully ask the Committee to fix. The traditional definition of academic freedom is "freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves at risk". The Parliamentary Draftsman has changed this to "freedom within the law and within their field of expertise to question...".

In more detail:

1. My expertise on academic freedom stems from the fact that in 2002 I founded, with colleagues, the ‘Campaign for Cambridge Freedoms’ to resist a proposed change in Cambridge’s intellectual property policy that would have made it harder for me to publish software I write so that it is free online for all to use.

2. I was elected to Council, the University’s governing body, from 2003–2006, 2007–2010 and 2015–2018, during much of which period I was de facto ‘leader of the opposition’ in that it fell to me to oppose whatever stupidity the Vice-chancellor of the day had been talked into by his or her officials. This included several proposed governance changes that would have curtailed academic democracy and autonomy. I also led investigations into cost and timetable overruns in construction projects. I also served on the Board of Scrutiny, an elected body with an audit function.

3. Since ending my service on the Council I have continued to support university campaigns against the abuse of authority, most recently that of Dr Arif Ahmed against a proposal by the current Vice-chancellor that would have enabled disciplinary action (including dismissal) against members of staff alleged to have shown insufficient ‘respect’ for the opinions, beliefs and identities of others.

4. In a number of these campaigns, including the most recent one, we prevailed by defeating the Vice-chancellor of the day on a ballot of the Regent House, which consists of all academic and other qualifying staff.

5. At all relevant times, I ran the website www.freecambridge.org which played a key role in these campaigns.

6. In my academic day job I have also been involved in various complaints, disciplinary matters, and committees on promotions, ethics and other relevant matters.

7. I have also been occasionally involved in lobbying parliaments in London, Edinburgh and Brussels on issues of relevance to my research and that of others including legislation on export controls and data protection. I worked for the UK Parliament as a special adviser to the Health Committee on the electronic patient record.

8. As a result, I consider myself to have a reasonable practical knowledge of how universities work, and how academic freedom can be threatened by assorted enthusiasms both within these institutions and outside them.

9. The traditional legal protection is valuable because although free speech itself is protected elsewhere (e.g. by the ECHR) it prevents university managers from acting spitefully against staff who speak out against some folly, which is never absent, in both scholarship and administration. It is of most value to junior academics, including research staff, who do not have any contractual tenure.

10. Restricting freedom of speech to an academic’s field of expertise is a strange innovation. The Committee might care to ask ministers whether it was really their intention that a conservative professor of ecclesiastical history might lose their employment protection if they were to express scepticism about gender studies.

11. However, the issue is much wider than culture and politics. It is in the nature of science, and of scholarship in general, to suffer from fashions. Fashions come and go, and some bubbles deserve to be burst.

12. Many of the important breakthroughs nowadays cut across disciplines. I am well known, for example, for developing the economics of information security as a discipline. By importing ideas from game theory and microeconomics we got a much better understanding of online crime than we could treating it as a purely technical problem. Our approach was criticised enough at the start, but is now orthodoxy.

13. Some academics sometimes describe it as ‘epistemic tresspassing’ when an expert from one field starts applying their skills to another. I would like to refer the Committee to an essay by the economist Noah Smith on this; he gives many examples such as the mathematician Peter Woit criticising the follies of string theory, Google’s AlphaFold algorithm, and the anaylsis by social scientist Zeynep Tufekci of the benefits of mask wearing in the early months of the pandemic [1]. Making contributions to a new field should not be seen as a problem, but as one of our best sources of radical innovation.

14. Of course, incumbent professors may resent any innovation that renders their own theories and practices irrelevant or uninteresting. If they hold senior posts in a university, they can punish academics they see as threatening, by withholding contract renewals, appointments, tenure and promotion. But this is not how arguments over what’s true and what’s false should be conducted. Such bullying is an abuse of power, and the whole point of having an academic freedom principle embedded in employment law is to prevent this kind of abuse.

15. Finally, the people most likely to challenge the boundaries and start exciting new work across disciplines are precisely those young researchers who are most likely to need protection as they do not yet have tenure.

In short, restricting academic freedom to each academic’s putative discipline is both bizarre and potentially harmful. Please amend the Bill to remove it.

Yours Sincerely

Ross Anderson FRS FReng

Professor of Security Engineering

Cambridge University

Edinburgh University

[1] Noah Smith, ‘Epistemic Trespassing, or Epistemic Squatting?’, at https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/epistemic-trespassing-or-epistemic

September 2021


Prepared 13th September 2021