Russell Group warns OfS to stay ‘impartial’ on free speech

Regulator tells universities free speech codes should cover teaching and academics will be polled, bringing ‘independence’ rebuke

December 15, 2022

The Office for Students wants universities’ free speech codes to cover teaching and it will poll academics on the state of free speech, an intervention that led the Russell Group to urge the regulator to maintain “its independence and ability to make impartial judgements”.

After the Office for Students published a report on free speech in English universities on 15 December, the Russell Group offered an unusually strong rebuke to the regulator, warning that “regulatory action needs to be taken on the basis of accurate data rather than partial analysis or inflammatory stories”.

It comes with the OfS increasingly active on the highly politicised issue of free speech using its regulatory powers, and with wider concerns about the regulator’s independence from government growing in the sector.

The government’s free speech bill, currently making its way through Parliament, would give the regulator greater powers, including through the creation of a director of freedom of speech and academic freedom within the OfS.

The OfS report sets out the regulatory and legal landscape for freedom of speech and reiterates the regulator’s “longstanding view that universities must embrace the widest range of lawful views”.

The brief says that not only will the OfS be surveying students on how comfortable they are “to express themselves freely at university or college” – a move already announced – but that it will “also be polling academics to ascertain their views on the state of free speech in higher education”.

And the OfS says in the brief that it “would expect a university’s free speech code” to “extend to activities such as teaching and curriculum content” – likely to raise concerns in universities about potential infringement of autonomy and academic freedom.

The paper cites reports on campus free speech from the right-wing thinktanks Policy Exchange and Civitas – though it concedes research on the area has been “contested” – as well as a Times newspaper report on “the extent of content warnings and the removal of texts from university reading lists”.

The regulator has also published its annual review, in which chief executive Susan Lapworth says of free speech: “We note the frequent press reports of incidents that cause concern in this area, alongside the 60 or so notifications we have received on free speech issues since 2018.”

Hollie Chandler, head of policy at the Russell Group, the group of large research-intensive universities, said the regulator was “right to highlight the importance of free speech and academic freedom and university leaders are already playing an active role in upholding these values on campuses around the UK”.

She added: “Given the importance of free speech, it is right that we keep protections under review. But regulatory action needs to be taken on the basis of accurate data rather than partial analysis or inflammatory stories…As the OfS takes on additional free speech responsibilities, its independence and ability to make impartial judgements will be critical to ensure students, staff and the sector more broadly have confidence in its approach.” 

Ms Lapworth told a briefing for journalists that as an independent regulator the OfS was “not interested in waging culture wars” or taking sides in particular debates.

In her briefing, Ms Lapworth referred to a Policy Exchange survey that found “only 54 per cent of academics said that they would feel comfortable sitting next to a known Leave supporter at lunch”.

Ms Lapworth said that was “astonishing as a picture of people’s views”.

But the Policy Exchange survey, conducted by YouGov, of 484 serving and 336 retired academics, has been described as relying on a “laughably small” sample of current academics.

Ms Lapworth told the briefing that “some academics appear to be deciding that expressing their lawfully held views may be more trouble than it’s worth”.

“I think that should trouble us all,” she added.

The OfS “routinely” looks “at how individual universities are approaching these issues” and is contacted by “third parties expressing concerns”, Ms Lapworth continued.

“We can see patterns in the sector that cause us concern.”

The report also aims to help universities understand the nature of their free speech duties under law, including how to balance these against Equality Act duties, Ms Lapworth said. There were cases of universities “leaning more fully into Equality Act duties than we think the law supports”, she added.

On universities’ free speech codes, Ms Lapworth said these “generally deal with events and external speakers” and “sometimes don’t go beyond that”.

These codes tend not to “engage with things that happen within the curriculum and within the classroom”, she went on.

But the OfS “would expect universities to be thinking” about how they illustrate to students and staff “the importance of free speech within the classroom”, she said.

The OfS is already consulting on introducing questions on free speech into the National Student Survey. One example question included in the consultation asks: “During your studies, how free did you feel to express your ideas, opinions and beliefs?”

Ms Lapworth said the OfS thought it would be “useful” if academics were asked to “answer similar questions about their ability to teach and research as they choose”.

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Reader's comments (1)

There is no free speech in universities. We are severely restricted by the latest trends on wokism, which allows for no deviation from the path of righteousness. The Equaluty Act, while it is largely a good thing, is part of the problem in restricting what we can research and how we can express ourselves.