I’ve seen cancel culture first hand in FE

16 May 2022, 6:00

There is an intolerance in the sector for people with views contrary to the prevailing ideology, writes Tom Bewick

The minister for higher and further education, Michelle Donelan, gave a really important speech recently. She set out the government’s plans to legislate to protect free speech.

Controversially, she also delivered a critique of so-called ‘cancel culture’ on campus, saying: “Where once we found critical debate and arguments were won on their merits, today we see an upsurge in physical threats and complete intolerance of opposing ideas.”

I believe that what Donelan said deserved to be reported on, at least by the sector press. Whether we like the ‘culture wars’ or not, they are a part of our national discourse.

The backlash I received on social media, from parts of FE, makes me think we have a problem.

I was the only sector leader to draw attention to the speech.

One FE commentator, Mick Fletcher, suggested cancel culture was, “fake news”, made up by a Tory elite looking to distract from austerity.

Former FE Week editor Nick Linford echoed a similar sentiment; posting an incredulous looking gif. Tagged to my twitter timeline, it read: “conspiracy times.”

Of course, they are entitled to their opinions. But what some people are guilty of in our profession, in my view, is straight out of the cancellation culture playbook. Not in the sense of an organised conspiracy. It’s more insidious than that.

For a start, telling people something isn’t real is known as ‘gaslighting’. If you don’t know what this phrase means, it refers to a colloquialism that is about manipulating an individual or social group to question their own sense of reality.

A gas-lighter engages in false narratives. An example of this in FE is the debate about whether colleges have actually been successful in securing more funding. The government’s cheerleaders pump out the false narrative that funding has increased.

Meanwhile, respected bodies, such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies, point out that in real terms, particularly relative to the recent past, FE is still chronically underfunded.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, those who point out this fact don’t generally get invited to join government panels or speak at sector conferences. They are cancelled.

Perhaps our FE leaders don’t believe we have a problem because we haven’t seen equivalent high-profile cases like that of Kathleen Stock? The academic was hounded out of her Sussex University post for expressing perfectly lawful gender critical views.

Similarly, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has not been asked to intervene in any major rows affecting free speech in a further education college, unlike in a school recently, where a diocese allegedly tried to get a gay author banned from speaking to pupils.

FE staff write to me all the time saying they have been ostracised by colleagues

These examples display shocking levels of intimidation and bigotry. They should have no place in a modern society.

But neither is it right for those in FE to simply dismiss growing concerns about cancel culture and self-censorship as some sort of conspiracy theory. Gaslighting or not.

I’ve seen cancel culture first hand. I had to pull out of a live college production of my podcast after the principal insisted that a national mainstream media commentator was de-platformed, refusing to give a reason why. I said I couldn’t go along with that decision.

FE staff write to me all the time saying how they have been ostracised by colleagues or lost out on promotions for admitting that they voted for Brexit, as I did, in the 2016 referendum.

Others tell me how they voted for Brexit but simply self-censor because they fear the consequences of being so open about it.

Indeed, it is this intolerance in the sector for people with contrary views to the prevailing ideology or who refuse to be part of an ‘echo chamber’, that we should now tackle.

Putting hashtag ‘be kind’ on social media profiles, or sector leaders virtue signalling about the latest EDI strategy, are not going to be enough.

Freedom of speech must be at the heart of everything that FE stands for.

Without open and contestable debates, we all suffer. 

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