Words by Ellie Deane

On 16th February the Education Secretary announced tougher legal measures to support free speech and academic freedom at universities. The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, warned of a “chilling effect” where students and staff feel unable to express themselves freely. 

The new proposals reflect a manifesto commitment to strengthen academic freedom in universities. These proposals were published in a report titled ‘Higher education: free speech and academic freedom’ on 16th February. 

The measures include a new free speech condition on academic intuitions as part of the registration process to receive access to public funding. The Office for Students (the higher education regulator in England), would have the power to impose sanctions for breaches of this free speech condition. 

Additionally, Student Unions would be placed under the jurisdiction of the Office for Students (the higher education regulator in England). Currently, under the Higher Education & Research Act 2017, only universities are registered with the Office for Students and this does not extend to Unions. As universities are registered with the OfS they must abide by Section 43 of the Education Act 1986. Student Unions on the other hand are predominantly registered as charities and not with the OfS. The proposal to register student unions with the OfS would mean unions would need to abide by section 43. 

Another proposed measure is to introduce a ‘statutory tort proposal’. This would provide a means of redress for individuals that have faced restriction to their freedom of speech. This would include students or academic staff who are disciplined because of their views, organisers of events which are cancelled and visiting speakers who are disinvited or ‘no platformed’. 

A further proposal is to appoint a ‘Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion’ to the Office for Students board. This Free Speech Champion would investigate infringements of free speech in higher education and make recommendations. The report states that there is currently an individual on the OfS Board with a similar role, which is the Director for fair access and participation. 

In a statement, the Education Secretary said: “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.”

The Badger spoke to Annie O’Connor, the Societies and Events Officer at the Sussex Student Union who said: “Freedom of speech is something which is hugely important on campuses.  However, the very small number of ‘no platforming’ incidents that the government paper references seem to be, at best, scraping the barrel.” Annie explained that “a far more relevant conversation to be had is the impact of the government enforced Prevent Duty. Racially marginalised groups and Muslim students (and staff) are familiar with having their freedom of speech suppressed since 2015 when universities and other public sector institutions had this imposed on them.” Annie explained that this “is a real problem with how freedom of speech is suppressed within our institution but one which is not mentioned in the government policy paper or much of the mainstream narrative surrounding it.” She added that “there is also another conversation to be had about whether the policy paper’s proposals will actually work to further protect freedom of speech within universities. The proposal to allow individuals to sue student unions if they feel their freedom of speech has been curtailed, for instance, could easily be counter intuitive to the aims of the paper.”

The Badger also spoke to Tom Wishart, the president of Sussex’s Liberate the Debate (LtD), who described the government’s proposals as “largely positive.” Commenting on the changes in legislation Tom explained that he thought, “the SU must be accountable to a higher body in this respect in order to prevent the partisan leanings of its members from affecting the decisions they make.” With respect to any drawbacks he added that, “the only thing that would make me uncomfortable is if this policy by the government is not instituted fairly. We must remember that free speech is not an exclusively right-wing issue and we should be wary of anybody who tries to make it so.”

In a study by the ‘Policy Institute at King’s College London’, 81 per cent of students thought that freedom of expression is more important than ever, with 86 per cent of students concerned that social media is enabling people to express intolerant views. However, most students considered freedom of speech to be more threatened in the UK overall than in their own universities. 63 per cent of students considered free speech and robust debate to be well protected in their university. 

Picture Credit: Number 10

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