The government will develop legislation to “strengthen free speech and academic freedom” at universities in England – but one critic suggested the government is targeting “phantom threats”.
The new legislation will require public-funded HE providers to sign a new covenant to “actively promote free speech” on campuses. It will institute a new champion for free speech and academic freedom to the board of the Office for Students (OfS), who will monitor universities and students’ unions and have the ability to levy fines for infringements. Student unions (SUs) are, for the first time, included in academic freedom legislation.
The new legislation will set out “legal measures” for individuals to seek compensation through the courts if they are silenced, expelled, dismissed or demoted because of their views. The free speech champion would lead investigations into incidences of “no-platforming” or unfair dismissals.
Asked if the new position would be a full-time, paid one, a spokesperson for the Department for Education (DfE) told University Business a decision “had not yet been made”.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson said the legislation was in response to an increasing number of individuals silenced for their views. University Business asked the DfE how many incidences of ‘silencing’ it had recorded – the department has yet to respond.
Williamson also said: “Free speech underpins our democratic society and our universities have a long and proud history of being places where students and academics can express themselves freely, challenge views and cultivate an open mind.
“But I am deeply worried about the chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring. That is why we must strengthen free speech in higher education, by bolstering the existing legal duties and ensuring strong, robust action is taken if these are breached.”
Government should support existing work by universities and students’ unions to defend and maintain freedom of expression on campus, rather than adding unnecessary and burdensome bureaucracy
– Russell Group
The National Union of Students (NUS) welcomed the opportunity to “prove once and for all that there is not an extensive problem with freedom of expression across higher education”.
Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, NUS vice-president for higher education, said:
“Students’ unions are committed to freedom of expression and are the very home of rigorous debate and new ideas. There is no evidence of a ‘freedom of expression crisis’ on campus and students’ unions are constantly taking positive steps to help facilitate the thousands of events that take place each year.”
Ms Gyebi-Ababio advised the government to “focus on providing the practical support that students desperately need” rather than attacking universities.
University and College Union (UCU) general secretary Jo Grady said the new bill targets “phantom threats to free speech”. She said the plan was the “biggest threat” to academic expression. “Endemic job insecurity and managerialist approaches” mean academics are less able to “speak truth to power”, she added.
The Russell Group said that evidence shows “the overwhelming majority of speaker events go ahead” – but added it was right to remain “constantly vigilant to threats”.
A spokesperson for the group said: “It is important that proposals in this government policy paper, if taken forward, are evidence-based and proportionate, with due care taken to ensure academic freedom and institutional autonomy.
“Government should support existing work by universities and students’ unions to defend and maintain freedom of expression on campus, rather than adding unnecessary and burdensome bureaucracy.”
OfS chief executive Nicola Dandridge said: “Free speech and academic freedom are essential to teaching and research. Universities and college have legal duties to protect both free speech and academic freedom, and their compliance with these responsibilities forms an important part of their conditions of registration with the OfS. We will ensure that the changes that result from today’s proposals reinforce these responsibilities and embed the widest definition of free speech within the law.”