Proposed powers for England’s new sector regulator to monitor and enforce free speech on campuses sound like “the opposite of freedom of speech”, according to Harriet Harman, chair of a parliamentary committee examining the issue.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights is gathering evidence on freedom of speech in UK higher education, with Jo Johnson, the universities minister, and Sir Michael Barber, chair of the Office for Students, among those set to be called to give evidence before MPs and peers.
Regarding free speech on campus, Ms Harman, the Labour MP who chairs the committee, told Times Higher Education: “We know there’s a controversy; [it] doesn’t mean there’s a problem.”
The committee’s first evidence session, held earlier in November, heard from figures including Tom Slater, the deputy editor of the Spiked website – which is known for its Free Speech University Rankings, which claim to show a “grim” picture across campuses – and Colin Riordan, the vice-chancellor of Cardiff University.
The hearing resulted in “one lot saying…‘there’s a major chilling effect and free speech is being extinguished on campuses’; and others saying ‘this is not a problem at all – this is all just a load of old nonsense’,” said Ms Harman, a former acting and deputy leader of the Labour Party. “The fact as to whether there is a problem or not, we are going to have to look at, to see whether there is.”
The committee will examine the duties in the arena of free speech for the government, the OfS, universities, students’ unions and student societies.
Universities, for example, are already under a legal duty to ensure freedom of speech for students, employees and visiting speakers under the Education Act 1986.
But they are also subject to duties under Prevent, the Home Office programme that aims to stop radicalisation, which creates duties for universities in handling external speakers. Some argue that the Prevent duties conflict with free speech duties.
Ms Harman said that the committee was “in favour of free speech, in favour of people not becoming terrorists and in favour of people not being unable to study because they are in a toxic atmosphere of racism, misogyny, homophobia or anti-Semitism. The point is how you reconcile all these issues in a way that has clarity but is not top-down oppressive.”
The government has proposed in a consultation on powers for the OfS that if an institution is deemed to have failed to comply with the freedom of speech principle, the OfS will be able to impose “specific conditions or formal sanctions against the provider including monetary penalties, suspension from the register or deregistration”.
“The whole thing about freedom is it’s the opposite of ‘indicative behaviours’, ‘compliance with principles’, ‘deregistration’…‘registration conditions’,” Ms Harman said. “It does sound a bit like the opposite of freedom of speech.”
She added: “Basically, the government – Jo Johnson – is telling everyone, ‘Let’s have freedom, freedom.’ Meanwhile, they are putting this out [the OfS consultation], which seems to me to be the opposite.”
Ms Harman also referred to a recent THE opinion piece by Sir Michael on freedom of speech. “I think his description of the issue being whether students feel comfortable or uncomfortable – sometimes uncomfortable is good because it’s about your head hurting with learning – is not really what people are talking about,” she said.
“People are talking [for example] about the discomfort of being a Jewish person in a climate of anti-Semitism. We want to engage him with that and we haven’t seen in his piece so far any recognition that there is a context for this.”