St Andrews University is spending nearly quarter of a million pounds a year on its equality and diversity staff but nothing at all on freedom of speech. I know this because an organisation called Alumni For Free Speech sent a freedom of information request to the university, then told me about it, and now I’m exercising my free speech by writing about the subject. So what’s the problem?

I’ll tell you what the problem is. First of all, £235,000 is a lot of money and in lean times, large amounts of money being spent on what is, undoubtedly, a controversial area must be justified. St Andrews tell me it’s only 0.2% of their annual staffing costs; they tell me too that the money is necessary to effectively discharge their statutory duties on equality. I also realise that railing against money being spent on EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion) can make you sound like an angry old white man who doesn’t get it.

But, having spoken to quite a few people about this in the last few days including lawyers and academics, I think it’s important to try and put the £235k into proper perspective because the bigger point here isn’t really that lots of cash is being spent on EDI, it’s that nothing – not a penny – is being spent by St Andrews on another equally important, and pressing, subject, which is the protection of freedom of speech on university campuses.

One of the vice-principals at St Andrews told me I was looking at the subject the wrong way round and that their university strategy includes the promise to promote and defend academic freedom and freedom of speech. He also pointed out St Andrews has never “de-platformed” speakers and has given platforms to, among others, the leader of the BNP, JK Rowling, trans activists, and Nicola Sturgeon.

This is all good stuff as far as it goes I must say. The point about de-platforming – or preventing someone speaking on campus because of their views – is also undoubtedly true. In fact, de-platforming or overt cancel culture is still pretty rare in the UK, thankfully. It happens, absolutely, and when it does it’s damaging and can have real effects, but it is actually the extreme end of a problem that goes much deeper and is much more subtle and harder-to-spot than you’d think.

One of the academics I spoke to, Neil Thin, honorary research fellow at Edinburgh University, explained to me how it works. What happens in practice, he said, is that because of overt, aggressive or denunciatory attacks on individuals, people at universities start to self-censor. They see what’s happened to other people and think ‘I don’t want that, I’ll avoid that topic’. And so freedom of speech is affected and damaged.

Dr Thin knows about all of this from personal experience. In 2021, he came under attack from students, some of whom called for him to be sacked, because he questioned the renaming of the university’s David Hume Tower. Fortunately, he was able to stay on good terms with the university and has retained a position with them. But his point about self-censorship goes to the heart of what we’re talking about here and the issue with that £235k a year at St Andrews.

The problem, essentially, is that you have to do more than assert the principle of free speech, you have to actively discourage self-censorship, particularly on some of the controversial subjects which are included in EDI – trans rights for example, gender, and the question of whether trans women should have access to women-only spaces. These are potentially toxic subjects and students and academics will avoid speaking about them if their university is not taking active steps to ensure they can.

What this means, in practice, is that if St Andrews and other universities are to spend lots of money on EDI staff who take a particular position on controversial subjects, they should also spend money on promoting and protecting the rights of people who disagree with those positions. Andrew Neish KC, co-founder of Alumni For Free Speech and a graduate of St Andrews, put it this way: spending the better part of quarter of a million pounds on employing people to impose ideological positions on students and staff while not a single person is employed or a penny spent on free speech compliance is unacceptable.

You may be wondering if St Andrews really is “imposing” ideological positions on students and staff. As it happens, the university continues to insist on compulsory training on equality and diversity which students must pass to matriculate and staff must pass in order to be employed, which looks a lot like imposition to me. I’d also like to know what kind of assumptions and assertions the students and staff must accept in order to pass but St Andrews refuses to reveal the contents of the training.

All of this is pretty troubling and I say that as someone who was an early supporter of the Scottish Government’s self-ID bill. What bothers me is that many opponents of the legislation, or gender-critical feminists and others who believe that sex is binary and are making perfectly reasonable arguments for their position, feel like they must self-censor on university campuses or do not have confidence in their university if they spoke out. That is unacceptable and contrary to the principle that St Andrews and others say they support which is that students and staff can be exposed to opinions which they may find challenging.

What St Andrews needs to do now is demonstrate that support more robustly. The £235,000 they’re spending on EDI every year goes on a head of department, a deputy head, two advisors and an assistant and is unlikely to change. But what they could and should do is appoint someone of equivalent seniority and prominence who has responsibility for promoting and protecting freedom of speech. Importantly, that person would be absolutely neutral on controversial subjects such as gender – as the entire leadership of the university should be – and they would actively work to encourage people to talk about the subject and other controversial issues, because that is how universities should be.

I am not hugely optimistic that the change is likely to come soon, but I also think I can detect some signs of hope. Mr Neish and his colleagues at Alumni For Free Speech are doing some excellent work and I’ve spoken to several academics who are making a stand. But it’s up to the leadership of universities now. They say they are committed to protecting freedom of speech on campus; St Andrews says its commitment is “unwavering”. But universities must do more than say it now. They must prove it.