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UCU response to government 'free speech' proposals

16 February 2021

Secretary of state for education Gavin Williamson has announced threats of government sanctions and the appointment of a 'champion' to strengthen free speech.

Responding to the proposals, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'It is extraordinary that in the midst of a global pandemic the government appears more interested in fighting phantom threats to free speech than taking action to contain the real and present danger which the virus poses to staff and students. In reality the biggest threats to academic freedom and free speech come not from staff and students, or from so-called "cancel culture" but from ministers' own attempts to police what can and cannot be said on campus, and a failure to get to grips with the endemic job insecurity and managerialist approaches which mean academics are less able to speak truth to power.'

UCU has published research that shows how university management and the UK government have damaged academic freedom. This includes the use of short-term, precarious contracts that limit staff freedoms. It has also submitted a formal allegation to the United Nations against the UK government over its non-compliance with academic freedom. The allegation says the use of casualised employment, corporatised university governance, and policies like Prevent have infringed academic speech and research.

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