Why Toby Young is giving our keynote lecture

While some scholars still distrust the Free Speech Union and its founder, it is difficult to ignore the important support that it provides academics under attack, says Roger Watson

February 24, 2023
Toby Young
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Later this month, Toby Young, the founder of the Free Speech Union (FSU), will give the National Conference of University Professors’ (NCUP) annual lecture.

As president of the latter group, I have organising this event as part of my remit, but it is clear that my invitation to the Spectator journalist, controversialist and, for some, all-round hate figure has been a controversial one.

After announcing the event’s details in a mail-out to members, we received several vitriolic emails. I, along with the NCUP, was essentially labelled a fascist and misogynist and accused of playing up to a manufactured, but non-existent, “free speech crisis” in UK universities.

Thus spoke people, I assumed, after whom the mob had not come.

They had certainly come after me, early in 2020, and I benefited from my early membership of the FSU. I spoke at a meeting where I expressed my concern over the effects of the Covid-19 lockdown. This led to me being reported to my university employer and I was asked to account for my actions. Advice from the FSU proved effective; being able to copy in replies from Toby Young to my employer helped to stem any further action. I received more attention on the same basis from my professional body and, once again, support from the FSU proved invaluable.

While Young’s detractors will point to some of the boorish comments made online more than a decade ago, which saw him blocked from joining the Office for Students board in 2018, as a reason not to host him, I don’t think we can ignore what the FSU has achieved since then.

Its membership is just short of 10,000 members and it has won significant victories on behalf of scholars and students. While I would never be instinctively attracted to joining any organisation established by a self-declared right-wing journalist, the union has attracted cross-party support – from prominent Labour Party member and equal opportunities campaigner Sir Trevor Phillips, Jim Sillars, a left-wing firebrand of Scottish politics, and Alex Salmond, the former Scottish National Party leader.

Nevertheless, I can understand why some have asked why I would invite someone who was considered by many to be an enemy of academics and universities to address an organisation of professors. In some eyes, he is a Conservative stooge, employed to bash higher education in a needless and provocative way in order to stoke the so-called “culture wars”.

My answer is clear: while Toby Young takes a more extreme view of the state of academic freedom today, there is clearly something amiss in British universities.

There may not be a “crisis” of free speech, but there are many individuals whose lives and mental health have been pushed into crisis by being pulled up by their universities for speaking out against the grain. For example, Neil Thin, the University of Edinburgh lecturer who questioned the wisdom and necessity of renaming the David Hume tower, was forced to halt his teaching for months before he was cleared of any wrongdoing. Meanwhile, Lisa Keogh was nearly expelled from Abertay University for questioning the place, in an open discussion, of transgender women in women’s sports.

Other cases in the public domain include feminist philosopher Kathleen Stock, hounded out of the University of Sussex over her views on transgender women, and social work student Felix Ngole, whose views on same-sex marriage did not accord with his department and who was unlawfully suspended from his studies at the University of Sheffield. These are the public tip of an iceberg of people who have chosen not to seek publicity in the course of being supported by the FSU.

In the absence of any traditional staff organisations specifically supporting academics under attack, and free speech issues – in the form of the government’s Free Speech Bill, now progressing through Parliament – it strikes me that the founder and director of the FSU was an ideal – and suitably controversial – choice for this year’s annual lecture to the NCUP.

For those who refuse to attend or to engage with us further, I simply urge them to “audi alternam partum” (hear the other side). I’m happy to hear about suitable candidates for next year’s annual lecture, but on 28 February the speaker will be Toby Young.

Roger Watson is president of the National Conference of University Professors. Until 2022, he was professor of nursing at the University of Hull and is now academic dean at the Southwest Medical University’s School of Nursing in China.

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Reader's comments (4)

You got to laugh when someone going on about free speech chooses to relocate to China, I mean seriously
Their annual returns to the Charity Commission for England and Wales (Charity number 1180796) do not suggest that the NCUP is taking the world by storm.
If you don't agree with what someone says, surely it is better to engage in debate with them than run off with your fingers stuck in your ears?
I have simply experienced too many colleagues speaking in confidence about their fears about expressing their thinking in teaching and research to discount the concerns of the FSU.