Office for Students opens free speech investigation at Sussex University

The regulator of universities in England said it had “identified potential concerns” at Sussex University – but added its investigation does not indicate “any form of wrongdoing has actually taken place”

The Office for Students will investigate whether the University of Sussex “met its obligations” for academic freedom and freedom of speech, following the high-profile resignation of Prof Kathleen Stock.

Kathleen Stock was until recently a philosophy professor at the university – but she resigned in October after protestors demanded the university fire her over her views on gender identity, which they labelled “transphobic”. Prof Stock denies the claims. The university defended her, saying staff have the right “to say and believe what they think”.  

The regulator for universities in England said its investigation is focused on whether or not the university “met its obligations for academic freedom and freedom of speech”. The OfS added it had “identified potential concerns that require further scrutiny” at Sussex University – but stressed its inquiry ” should not be interpreted as indicating that any form of wrongdoing has actually taken place”. 

All students and staff are also entitled to the protections offered by equality legislation, and these must extend to all protected characteristics, including philosophical beliefs
– Office for Students

Announcing her resignation on 28 October, Prof Stock tweeted she was leaving the university after “a very difficult few years”. She said the university “leadership’s approach more recently has been admirable and decent”. 

The vice-chancellor of Sussex University said of her resignation: “The university has been consistent and clear that everyone in our community has the right to work and learn, free from bullying and harassment of any kind, which has not been the case for Professor Stock.”

In a statement, the OfS said it “considers academic freedom and freedom of speech within the law to be essential to the strength of the higher education sector in England”. 

“Students are entitled to be taught by academic staff with a wide range of views and who can freely express lawful views, no matter how controversial they are, without fear of losing their jobs or privileges,” the OfS statement continued. “All students and staff are also entitled to the protections offered by equality legislation, and these must extend to all protected characteristics, including philosophical beliefs.” 

The OfS said it offers no further comment while the investigation is ongoing.

After Stock resigned, Michelle Donelan said: “It is absolutely appalling that the toxic environment at the University of Sussex has made it untenable for Professor Kathleen Stock to continue in her position there. No academic should ever have to fear for their personal safety.”

In an interview with BBC Woman’s Hour broadcast in early November, Prof Stock said some of her colleagues and the local branch of the University and College Union (UCU) was the reason she resigned. 

“There’s a small group of people who are absolutely opposed to the sorts of things I say, and instead of getting involved in arguing with me, using reason, evidence, the traditional university methods, they tell their students in lectures that I pose a harm to trans students, or they go on to Twitter and say that I’m a bigot,” she said. “So thus creating an atmosphere in which the students then become much more extreme and much more empowered to do what they did.”

In the Woman’s Hour interview, Prof Stock described a statement from the Sussex UCU branch, which called for a university-wide investigation into transphobia, as a “personal tipping point”. The union statement “basically backed the protesters and implicitly made it obvious that they thought I was transphobic”, she told the BBC show.

Read more: Prof Kathleen Stock resignation ‘sad day for freedom of speech’, declares Donelan

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