Free speech must remain at the heart of UK higher education

Restrictions are rare, but the Russell Group is putting its commitment to the open and rigorous contestation of ideas beyond doubt, says Tim Bradshaw

April 22, 2021
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Free speech at UK universities has been a hot topic in recent months, with regular media reports and parliamentary rows now followed by government proposals that could lead to the introduction of new legal duties for English universities and students’ unions. Yet much of the public debate has overlooked what should be the starting point for any discussion on this issue: students, universities and government agree far more on the imperative to protect free speech than some sensationalist stories would have you believe.

Our universities take extremely seriously their responsibility to foster a healthy campus culture that ensures debate is not curtailed or self-censored. It goes to the very heart of the purpose of higher education. Since February’s publication of the government’s legislative proposal – which would require universities to guarantee free speech as a condition of registration and access to public funding – there has been significant discussion on whether the measures set out are necessary, and if they add anything to the comprehensive legal framework protecting freedom of expression that has been in place since the mid-1980s.

Evidence suggests the existing protections work well, with work from the Office for Students finding little evidence to support claims that freedom of speech is being restricted on campuses. Indeed, a recent King’s College London study found that 81 per cent of students think free speech is more important than ever, and a 2020 survey reported that just six of more than 10,000 events planned at 61 UK students’ unions were cancelled last year, with four of these cancellations being the result of a failure to meet administrative requirements.

It is clear that the reporting of some high-profile incidents is not reflecting the reality of the situation on the ground. Unfortunately, the detailed joint work universities and students’ unions do every day to facilitate debate and provide opportunities to engage with new ideas rarely attracts column inches.

None of this, however, provides grounds for complacency. Far from it.

Where legitimate fears over free speech are expressed, it is vital universities respond and send a clear signal that debates on topics some individuals may find challenging or controversial will go ahead if the opinions being expressed are lawful. Similarly, universities have a responsibility to respond to concerns raised by students or academics who feel unable to express their views on particular topics. While evidence for a so-called “chilling effect” is largely anecdotal and limited, it should not be ignored.

Evidence suggests universities already act quickly when free speech concerns arise. At Cardiff University, when 3,000 people signed a petition arguing that Germaine Greer should not be allowed to deliver a lecture in 2015 because of her views on transgenderism, the university resisted the campaign to cancel the event and ensured it went ahead safely and with appropriate security.

A recent University of Cambridge debate and vote regarding its free speech policy also generated significant controversy, with opponents of an initial draft warning, among other things, that a requirement for staff and students to “be respectful of the differing opinions of others” could inhibit debate. However, cut through the noise and it is clear that what took place was an open, transparent process that helped to shape effective university policy (“be respectful of”, for instance, was replaced with “tolerate”). The university arrived at an agreed statement that protects the right to robust debate, and makes clear it is unacceptable to no platform speakers whose views are controversial but not unlawful. 

Today, the Russell Group has taken additional steps to place the commitment of our universities to the open and rigorous contestation of ideas beyond doubt.

This new statement of principles sets out how our universities protect freedom of speech and will continue to do so. It recognises that exposure to conflicting ideas is a critical element of the educational process and underlines the importance of tolerating wide-ranging views, including those that some may find challenging or controversial.

There are certain circumstances under counterterrorism law and other legislation that require free expression to be limited. However, as the statement makes clear, when universities need to apply restrictions, they will always do so in a way that is mindful of the fundamental importance of freedom of speech to robust intellectual debate.

Everyone is pulling in the same direction here. We all want to find ways to ensure that freedom of speech and academic freedom remain genuinely protected, so that universities are places where all voices can be heard. In publishing these principles, Russell Group universities are making a clear public commitment to students, university staff and wider society that they will continue to work hard to ensure free expression and academic freedom remain at the heart of UK higher education.

Tim Bradshaw is chief executive of the Russell Group.

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