“Most qualified person should get the job” is microaggression, Russell Group universities say

A number of UK universities – including prestigious Russell Group institutions – have launched “an overt attack on intellectual freedom”, issuing staff and student training courses that define the expression of perfectly lawful beliefs as “microaggressions”.

A number of UK universities – including prestigious Russell Group institutions – have launched “an overt attack on intellectual freedom”, issuing staff and student training courses, guides and statements that define the expression of perfectly lawful beliefs as “microaggressions”.

As reported in the Telegraph, staff and students at these institutions are being told that saying “the most qualified person should get the job” is a “microaggression”.

At least five universities have issued guidance or training courses on how to eliminate ‘microaggressions’, which are defined as subtle or indirect forms of discrimination.

The microaggression statements from universities were uncovered by the Committee for Academic Freedom (CAF), a group of academics worried about the erosion of free speech on campus.

Dr Edward Skidelsky, a philosophy lecturer at the University of Exeter, who is director of the CAF, said that a number of these statements are particularly problematic in that they define the expression of various legal beliefs as ‘microaggressions’, which represents “an overt attack on intellectual freedom”.

These universities include Imperial College London, Glasgow University and Newcastle University.

Guidance from the University of Glasgow and the engineering department of Imperial College London states that saying “the most qualified person should get the job” is an example of a microaggression.

Glasgow’s guidance, which forms part of the university’s anti-racism campaign, suggests that the statement would be wrong because it asserts “that race does not play a role in life successes”.

Other examples of microaggressions listed by the university include saying that “everyone can succeed if they work hard enough”. The university states that possible implications of the statement could include suggesting that someone only got a job because of quotas, or that they cannot make a valuable contribution.

Newcastle University describes microaggressions as “the everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of colour, women, people from LGBTQIA+ communities or those who are marginalised, experience in their day-to-day interactions with people”.

It cites examples such as a white person telling a black person “white people get killed by the police too”, when discussing police brutality.

Commenting on these statements, Dr Skidelsky said: “By campaigning against questioning and denial, these universities are advocating an uncritical acceptance of statements in the various, undefined areas that their microaggression guides refer to. The effect, again, is to undermine a culture of free inquiry.”

So how will senior leaders manage to capture and – for disciplinary purposes – evidence these subtle, interactionally complex ‘microaggressions’ as they unfold in real time within the messy, day-to-day realities of campus life? Perhaps the most troubling aspect to this story is that students at these institutions are now being encouraged to anonymously report any ‘undesirable’ staff seen committing these perceived slights to university authorities.

Since the FSU formed in 2020, we have legally represented many academics whose speech has been policed or silenced, and we are concerned about a growing trend in higher education institutions to utilise this form of surveillance – technically known as ‘sousveillance’ – in which members within a group monitor others within that same group, just like the Stasi’s system in East Germany during the Cold War.

Other institutions to have adopted this technique include the University of St Andrews, the University of Surrey, and Trinity Laban Conservatoire, where staff and students are given the option to report microaggressions anonymously online.

In recent guidance on reporting racism, Downing College Cambridge also encourages students to report academics for “microaggressions”, where that term is understood to involve: “Everyday acts that serve to subjugate people of colour in more or less covert ways”.

The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (Lamda) also recently placed QR codes around the school, allowing trainee actors, directors and technicians to report their tutors for any perceived slights or discrimination. Once scanned, the QR code gives students access to the official Lamda ‘Microaggression Reporting Form’, which asks them to recount incidents of microaggressions “in as much detail as possible” and suggest what they “would like done in response” to these perceived aggressions.

What makes sousveillance particularly insidious is that it leaves teaching staff to the mercy of the most hyper-sensitive (or vexatious) student in the seminar room, and openly cultivates a culture of fear-induced blandness.