Insight event: Freedom of speech in higher education

This event explored how universities and colleges can promote freedom of speech in practice and navigate difficult issues as they arise on campus.

The views and opinions expressed by external speakers and panel members in this event are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of the OfS.

Lord Wharton, chair of the Office for Students (OfS), and Susan Lapworth, chief executive, hosted a wide-ranging discussion of free speech and equality in higher education.

Also taking part were:

  • Claire Coutinho MP, Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing
  • Akua Reindorf, Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) commissioner
  • Dr John Tomasi, President of Heterodox Academy
  • Patrick O’Donnell, Account Executive, past President of University of York Students’ Union
  • Ruth Anderson, CEO of Index on Censorship
  • Professor Steve West, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West of England.

Legislation currently before Parliament would, if enacted, strengthen the OfS’s role in ensuring free speech and academic freedom in higher education. This event had a practical focus on how universities and colleges can navigate free speech issues as they arise on campus.

This event is aimed at students, academics, policymakers, commentators, and anyone with an interest in freedom of speech in higher education. We considered:

  • The existing duties placed on universities, including the relationship between universities’ freedom of speech and equality duties
  • Student and staff experiences of free speech issues
  • The current and potential future role of the OfS in freedom of speech on campus.

While this event discussed the regulatory and legal landscape as at the time of the event, material relating to legislation currently before Parliament may become quickly out of date. And, while it provided commentary on a range of regulatory and legal issues, the event was not intended to provide legal advice or a comprehensive statement or guide on the law relating to freedom of speech and academic freedom.

If you have any questions about this event, please email [email protected]




  • James Wharton, Lord Wharton of Yarm


Introductory remarks

  • Claire Coutinho MP, Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing


Keynote address – Freedom to question, challenge and debate

  • Susan Lapworth, Chief Executive, Office for Students


Audience questions


Keynote address – Disciplined Speech: an American Perspective

  • Dr John Tomasi, President, Heterodox Academy


Keynote address – Harassment, hate and offence v freedom of speech in the academy: where does the law draw the line?

  • Akua Reindorf, Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) Commissioner and Barrister, Cloisters Chambers


Panel discussion:

How can universities and colleges meet their obligations for both freedom of speech and equality?

  • Akua Reindorf
  • Professor Steve West
  • Ruth Anderson
  • Patrick O’Donnell


Closing remarks

  • Susan Lapworth, Chief Executive, Office for Students


Chair, Office for Students (OfS)

Lord Wharton was made a life peer in September 2020 and has been chair of the OfS since April 2021. He was elected as an MP in 2010 and served as the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for International Development from July 2016 to June 2017, and as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Communities and Local Government, with responsibility for Local Growth and the Northern Powerhouse, from May 2015 until July 2016. Prior to that he worked as a solicitor.

Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing, Department for Education

Claire Coutinho was elected as an MP for East Surrey in December 2019 and appointed as the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Chancellor in March 2020. Prior to this she was the Minister for Disabled People at the Department for Work and Pensions.

Claire began her career at Merrill Lynch, before working in social justice policy, including at the Centre for Social Justice. She then worked within Government as a special adviser to Rishi Sunak, when he was Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

Chief Executive, Office for Students (OfS)

Susan Lapworth was appointed chief executive of the OfS in September 2022 following a period as interim chief executive. She was previously the OfS's director of regulation, responsible for developing and implementing the OfS's regulatory framework. She has spent over 20 years working in senior roles in a range of higher education providers.

President, Heterodox Academy

John Tomasi is the inaugural president of Heterodox Academy (HxA), which promotes open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement in institutions of higher learning.

Before joining HxA, he was the Romeo Elton 1843 Professor of Natural Theology at Brown University, where he taught and wrote about political philosophy and was twice awarded university-wide prizes for excellence in undergraduate teaching. At Brown, he founded and directed the Political Theory Project, an independent research centre that supported scholarship and encouraged political dialogue on campus. 

He is the author of Free Market Fairness (Princeton 2012) and co-authored The Individualists: Radicals, Reactionaries, and the Struggle for the Soul of Libertarianism (Princeton 2023) with Matt Zwolinski.

Barrister, Cloisters Chambers and Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) Commissioner

Akua Reindorf is a barrister at Cloisters Chambers and Commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. She specialises in employment, discrimination and human rights law, with a focus on the higher education sector. She works at the interface between university governance and regulation, duties in equality law, public sector duties, academic freedom and fundamental rights. She appears in court, tribunal and internal hearings. She conducts complex internal investigations, most commonly involving polarising and contested identity and equality issues or detailed reviews of policies and procedures

In 2021 she wrote the ‘Reindorf Review’ for the University of Essex; an investigation into allegations that two visiting academics had been no-platformed because of their views on trans rights. The review was widely reported as a landmark contribution to the debate on sex, gender and cancel culture in universities. 

Former President, University of York Students’ Union

Patrick O’Donnell was the President of University of York Students' Union from 2020-22, where he was responsible for representing over 22,000 members and coordinating the union's campaigns and strategic direction.

Recognising the need for open discussions and disagreements across universities to foster a positive exchange of ideas, he worked with other students’ unions to co-author a series of student-led proposals on Wonkhe to secure and champion free speech on campus. Since then, Patrick has worked with a cross-party grouping of MPs and peers to influence the government’s Freedom of Speech Bill, advocating for proportionate and practical legislative responses to balance the interests of all students.

Patrick is currently an Account Executive at public affairs and communications firm Higginson Strategy, where he supports campaigns across the environmental and social change sectors. 

Chief Executive, Index on Censorship

Ruth Anderson is the chief executive of Index on Censorship – the international campaign to protect and promote free speech around the world. It was originally launched in 1971 to provide a platform for Soviet dissidents to expose what was happening behind the iron curtain.

She was previously the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent North & Kidsgrove from 2015-2019. During that time, she was the vice-chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the Parliamentary Chair of the Jewish Labour Movement. 

Before her election, Ruth ran HOPE not hate, the anti-extremism campaign that defeated the BNP and EDL. Ruth has also worked in the trade union, third sector and private sectors before seeking election.

President, Universities UK, and Vice-Chancellor, University of the West of England

Steve West CBE, DL the president of Universities UK (UUK) and chair of the UUK Mental Health in Higher Education Working Group.

As president of UUK, he has spoken on how academic freedom and freedom of speech are fundamental in advancing understanding and the pursuit of truth in higher education.

He is also the vice-chancellor, president and CEO of the University of the West of England, Bristol.

He is chair of the West of England Academic Health Science Network and non- executive director for the Integrated Care Board for Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire (BNSSG). He was made Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2017, for services to higher education.

More information on this topic

Insight brief: Freedom to question, challenge and debate

This brief outlines the legal and regulatory framework within which universities and colleges must make decisions about matters relating to freedom of speech.

University leaders and academics should be proactive in upholding freedom of speech

Susan Lapworth has said that university leaders and academics should ensure their policies and processes support free speech and academic freedom.

The OfS guide to free speech

Read the OfS's online guide to freedom of speech

Published 24 October 2022
Last updated 16 December 2022
16 December 2022
Published video and slides from the event.
24 November 2022
Added agenda and speaker biographies.

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