Letters to the Press

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This week BfB co-editors Graham Gudgin and Robert Tombs had three letters published in the Times and Financial Times. Graham Gudgin was a co-signatory to Professor Matthew

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Goodwin’s letter to the Times (Feb 16th 2-21) supporting the new powers given to the Office of Students to defend free speech. Robert Tombs letter to the Times (Feb 18th) deplored the fact that such powers should be required but agreed that they were necessary. Both letters are reproduced below. We are well aware of free speech issues since two of our production team at Cambridge feel the need for anonymity to protect their careers.

On a different subject Graham Gudgin replied (FT Feb 17th) to a letter from Professors Collier, Mayer and McCann (FT Feb 9th) pointing out that the UK has the widest regional economic disparities of any advanced country and demanding that such disparities should be reversed. His letter (see below) argued that the UK works well to support those living in weaker regions. Despite these differences in productivity, regional living standards are relatively similar due to differences in prices especially house prices, and to government support for public services.

The letters are as follows:

Sir, Britain’s universities are failing to protect academic freedom. In recent years, too many academics have been marginalised because they hold unorthodox views on issues like gender, Brexit and the legacy of empire. Challenging speakers have been disinvited and universities often put the ‘emotional safety’ of students ahead of free inquiry. A string of recent studies show that many academics who hold nonconformist views ‘self-censor’ and do not feel comfortable sharing them on campus. This undermines viewpoint diversity in the very institutions that are committed to truth and free inquiry and hampers our ability to develop well-rounded critical thinkers. This is why we welcome the government’s new proposals to strengthen academic freedom. The Office for Students will be given new powers to defend free speech and impose sanctions for breaches and our universities will have a duty to ‘actively promote’ freedom of speech. This will give new protections to academics who are side-lined, reducing ‘chilling effects’ for conservative and gender-critical staff and students, and thereby strengthening our institutions.

Signed by Professor Matthew Goodwin and 6 others including Dr Graham Gudgin

Sir, Who cannot feel ashamed that the State has felt it necessary to step in to protect academic freedom in British universities?  I deplore it, but am sorry to believe it necessary.  I know that many academics, especially those early in their careers and with families to think of, have to think very carefully before speaking out.  They cannot count on the support of university authorities.  Their trade union dismisses their lived experience as a myth.  Even some students regard freedom as dangerous.  We can only hope that legal safeguards will slowly bring a change in the culture, so that in time coercive behaviour will be as unacceptable in intellectual matters as it is in other aspects of life.

Robert Tombs

In their letter (February 9) professors Paul Collier, Colin Mayer and Philip McCann rightly criticise “the damaging (regional) divergences that must be reversed”. It is true that in the UK regional disparities in productivity are wide by OECD standards, but this is only part of the story. If we use an accepted measure of regional living standards to include spending by households plus government spending on behalf of households, then regional disparities are not very wide at all. On this measure and using Office for National Statistics data, living standards in Scotland are above those in London and the south east, and Northern Ireland is not far behind. Three factors are responsible for this impressive levelling up. One is the sharp difference in house prices. Spending on housing is three times higher in London than in the north east although actual housing standards are lower and overcrowding higher. Second, other consumer prices are 10 per cent higher in London. Third, spending on public services is close to 20 per cent above the UK average in Scotland and Northern Ireland. If productivity were more equal across the UK, these countervailing factors would be more muted and living standards perhaps not so different from today. Of course if productivity could be raised to London levels in all regions the UK would be better off. The data seem to show the Midlands has the lowest living standards, not regions further north or west.

Graham Gudgin

Chief Economic Adviser,

Policy Exchange Cambridge

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