Watchdog to name universities and colleges that fail to uphold free speech

Institutions could be forced to pay students, staff and visiting speakers if complaints about free speech restrictions are justified under the plans.

Eleanor Busby
Thursday 14 December 2023 00:01 GMT
Students’ unions in England will also need to take steps to secure legal free speech for students, staff and visiting speakers (Chris Radburn/PA)
Students’ unions in England will also need to take steps to secure legal free speech for students, staff and visiting speakers (Chris Radburn/PA) (PA Wire)

Universities, colleges and students’ unions in England which fail to uphold free speech duties are set to be named publicly by the higher education watchdog.

Institutions could be forced to pay students, staff and visiting speakers if complaints about restrictions on their free speech are upheld under the plans.

A consultation on the proposals by the Office for Students (OfS) – which are due to come into effect in August – suggests fines could also be imposed on students’ unions if they do not comply with their free speech duties.

It comes after the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill became law in May. It will require universities, colleges and students’ unions in England to take steps to ensure lawful freedom of speech on campus.

This does not include unlawful speech, such as harassing others or inciting violence or terrorism.

When these measures are introduced, we will have much stronger protections for freedom of speech

Professor Arif Ahmed, OfS director for freedom of speech

On Thursday, the OfS published a consultation on its proposed free-to-use complaints scheme for students, staff and visiting speakers, as well as its approach to regulating students’ unions on free speech matters.

In a briefing, Professor Arif Ahmed, director for freedom of speech and academic freedom at the OfS, said the regulator would “normally expect” to publish its decision if a complaint about free speech is justified.

When asked whether the watchdog will name and shame universities that have not protected free speech, he said: “Yes, we would expect that we will be identifying universities, colleges and students’ unions where we think they’ve failed to uphold their duties to secure free speech.”

Under the proposed complaints scheme, someone can complain to the OfS about a loss that they have suffered because a university, college, or students’ union has not taken steps to secure their free speech within the law.

The consultation suggests that an institution may be told to make a “payment of sums” to the complainant if the OfS decides that the complaint is justified.

The scheme is expected to come into force on August 1  – and the OfS plans to limit its review to complaints about matters that occurred on or after that date.

Prof Ahmed said: “When these measures are introduced, we will have much stronger protections for freedom of speech.

“They won’t need to have financial security or they won’t need to have strong financial backing or they won’t need to have any of the things that you might otherwise need in order to take something through court for instance.

“They can come to our complaints scheme, they can do it for free, if they’re eligible, and we will look at their complaint as soon as reasonably practicable.

“We would hope that that will function as a way to protect freedom of speech for everyone and for everyone’s views.”

Freedom of speech and academic freedom sit right at the heart of universities’ purpose, and the sector takes its responsibility to protect and promote them extremely seriously

A Universities UK spokeswoman

Students’ unions in England will also need to take steps to secure legal free speech for students, staff and visiting speakers under legislation, and they will need to maintain a code of practice to support this.

When asked whether it would be acceptable for a student or academic to be sanctioned for supporting an Intifada or using the phrase “from the river to the sea”, Prof Ahmed said he would be reluctant to say that a phrase is always going to be acceptable or not as it depends “on a variety of factors”.

He added: “The place where the line is drawn is always going to be the line between what the law permits and what the law doesn’t permit.

“And speech that amounts to illegal harassment, stirring up racial hatred, inciting violence, stirring up religious hatred, none of that would be protected.”

A Universities UK (UUK) spokeswoman said: “Freedom of speech and academic freedom sit right at the heart of universities’ purpose and the sector takes its responsibility to protect and promote them extremely seriously.

“We welcome the opportunity to feed into the next stage of OfS’ development of its plans to regulate universities on freedom of speech and will carefully consider the proposals to ensure that they work for students, universities and students’ unions.

“It is crucial that the Office for Students and the sector as a whole works together to ensure that everyone on campus feels able to share their lawful views and opinions without fear of censorship.”

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