Free speech and academic freedom are fundamental to university and college culture. Susan Lapworth, OfS director of regulation, discusses how all students and staff should be supported to have open and honest debate.
The Office for Students (OfS) stands for the widest possible definition of free speech – anything within the law – and we have made numerous public statements in support of free speech and academic freedom.
Our starting point is that free speech and academic freedom should be part of the culture of every university and college and be proactively promoted. Free speech and academic freedom are essential elements of higher education teaching and research; they are too precious and too fragile to be taken for granted. Academic staff must be able to undertake teaching and research with confidence and speak out in controversial areas without fear that this will affect their working environment or their careers. That is not always the case now.
Students should encounter, and be able to debate, new and discomforting ideas if they are to get the most out of higher education. Universities, colleges and other higher education providers, and their students’ unions and associations, should actively encourage robust, but civil, debate which takes different viewpoints seriously. Attempts to suppress or censor lawful speech, or academic freedom, should be robustly challenged, whether those attempts are made by students, staff or others such as foreign states. In short, scholarship is diminished if controversy is avoided.
Warming up the chill
There is a common theme across recent reports and studies that a ‘chilling effect’ may be inhibiting free speech and discouraging robust debate, in a way that has nothing explicitly to do with ‘no platforming’. This chilling effect may stem from, for example, overly bureaucratic processes for agreeing controversial speaking events, or the inappropriate imposition of security costs for inviting speakers, or a wider ‘culture of conformity’ that sees students and staff self-censoring to avoid personal consequences.
We want to ensure that free speech within the law is secured for students, staff and visiting speakers, so that the risk of a chilling effect is removed. Free speech is not just a question of visiting speakers; it is also an issue for the (virtual and physical) classroom, seminar and lecture hall.
Contend with the contentious
There are certain issues that are clearly particularly contentious, relating to matters such as identity, equality and geopolitics. These are areas where people have strong feelings, so views can be both personal and polarised. Where debate is particularly contentious, it is all the more important that everyone feels able to put forward their views and arguments and be heard, on all sides. Active listening and free speech go together; by listening attentively, we extend freedom of speech to others.
If a person or group feels intimidated from expressing their views or threatened by arguments being made, the answer is not to suppress the debate but to make sure that those people or groups are and feel supported, so that they too can meaningfully contribute to the debate.
Commitment gives confidence
Universities and colleges should ensure that internal policies and processes explicitly reflect their commitment to free speech and academic freedom. It is important that policies and processes are accessible, clear and easy to follow. This not only facilitates free speech and academic freedom in practical terms but sends a powerful signal of commitment and provides confidence to those who might otherwise feel constrained from expressing their views. It demonstrates that their university or college will protect them if they do express unpopular or contentious views.
Our regulatory commitment
Our existing regulatory requirements on free speech and academic freedom are embodied in our public interest governance principles with which all registered providers must comply. These provisions require providers to have systems in place to make good decisions on free speech and academic freedom.
But the government plans to go further. Last week it introduced The Higher Education (Free Speech) Bill into Parliament. The Bill strengthens the legal duties on higher education providers and makes significant changes to the regulation of free speech, within providers and their students’ unions. It gives the OfS the responsibility for resolving complaints about free speech or academic freedom from individual staff, students or visitors. We look forward to working with the government to implement the changes that result from the new legislation.
However, given the fundamental importance of free speech and academic freedom, we see value in continuing to use our existing regulatory approach, before the implementation of any statutory changes. Where universities or colleges are not meeting our existing regulatory requirements, we will intervene. In doing so, we will raise awareness of areas which give rise to regulatory concern, encouraging compliance across the sector, and encouraging those who feel that their rights to free speech and academic freedom have not been secured, to speak out.