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Landmark Government proposals to strengthen free speech at universities

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@GavinWilliamson to appoint a Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion. Landmark Government proposals to strengthen free speech at universities 

  • Government announces tough new legal measures to strengthen free speech and academic freedom on campus
  • Education Secretary to appoint a Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion to investigate breaches of free speech and impose fines where appropriate
  • Free speech duties to be strengthened and extended to Student Unions, which could also face fines

Tougher legal measures to strengthen free speech and academic freedom at universities in England have been announced by the Education Secretary today (16 February), to stamp out unlawful ‘silencing’ on campuses.

Following an increasing number of cases of individuals being silenced, the Education Secretary has warned of a ‘chilling effect’ where students and staff feel they cannot express themselves freely. 

The proposed measures deliver on a manifesto commitment, and include a new free speech condition placed on higher education providers in order to be registered in England and access public funding. The regulator, the Office for Students, would have the power to impose sanctions, including financial penalties, for breaches of the condition. 

The strengthened legal duties would also extend to Students Unions, which for the first time would have to take steps to ensure that lawful free speech is secured for their members and others, including visiting speakers. 

In addition, a new legal measure would enable individuals to seek compensation through the courts if they suffer loss as a result of breach of the free speech duties – such as being expelled, dismissed or demoted. 

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: 

“Free speech underpins our democratic society and our universities have a long and proud history of being places where students and academics can express themselves freely, challenge views and cultivate an open mind.


“But 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.”

Under the plans, the Education Secretary would also appoint a new Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion to investigate potential infringements, such as no-platforming speakers or dismissal of academics, and higher education providers would be legally required to actively promote free speech.

The new Champion would be appointed to the board of the Office for Students and would be able to investigate potential infringements of the new registration condition on freedom of speech and academic freedom in higher education. The registration condition would work alongside strengthened legal duties on free speech and academic freedom and the Champion would also be able to recommend that the Office for Students imposes fines. 

The policy paper also includes Government expectations that go beyond the minimum legal duties, setting out what universities should aspire to. 

The Government will continue to work alongside the sector on guidance and further research, and the next steps for legislation will be set out in due course.

Tom Simpson, Associate Fellow at Policy Exchange, and an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Public Policy, at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, said: 

“This policy paper by the Department of Education is a very welcome step towards ensuring that viewpoint diversity is protected in British universities. As Cambridge University’s recent Senate House vote shows, there is a substantial majority of academics who favour academic freedom. The problem, as Policy Exchange’s research has explored, is that a very online culture allows the views of a minority to exert disproportionate influence on administrators, and to exert a chilling effect on other academics. Promoting a norm of political non-discrimination, and incentivising administrators to do what they are already legally obliged to do, is a crucial step towards ensuring a culture of free discourse in our universities.”

Sector Response to University free speech proposals:

UCU response to government ‘free speech’ proposals   

Jo Grady 100x100Responding to threats of government sanctions and the appointment of a ‘Champion’ to strengthen ‘free speech’ by the Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson today, University and College Union (UCU) general secretary Jo Grady said

“It is extraordinary that in the midst of a global pandemic the government appears more interested in fighting phantom threats to free speech than taking action to contain the real and present danger which the virus poses to staff and students.

“In reality the biggest threats to academic freedom and free speech come not from staff and students, or from so-called ‘cancel culture’, but from ministers’ own attempts to police what can and cannot be said on campus, and a failure to get to grips with the endemic job insecurity and managerialist approaches which mean academics are less able to speak truth to power.”

nicola dandridge100x100Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of the OfS said

“Free speech and academic freedom are essential to teaching and research. Universities and college have legal duties to protect both free speech and academic freedom, and their compliance with these responsibilities forms an important part of their conditions of registration with the OfS.

“We will ensure that the changes that result from today’s proposals reinforce these responsibilities and embed the widest definition of free speech within the law.”

Responding to proposals announced by the government to ‘strengthen’ free speech at universities, Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, NUS Vice President for Higher Education, said:

“Students’ unions are committed to freedom of expression and are the very home of rigorous debate and new ideas. There is no evidence of a freedom of expression crisis on campus, and students’ unions are constantly taking positive steps to help facilitate the thousands of events that take place each year.

“At a time when students are facing untold hardship the government would be much better advised to focus on providing the practical support that students desperately need, through maintenance grants, no detriment policies and funding to eradicate digital poverty, rather than attacking the very institutions that have stepped up to fill the gaps in support being offered.

“We recognise this announcement as on opportunity for us to prove once and for all that there is not an extensive problem with freedom of expression across higher education. NUS looks forward to working with the new Free Speech Champion to support students’ unions to continue to promote freedom of expression.” 

In response to the Government’s proposed measures to strengthen free speech and academic freedom at universities in England, a Russell Group spokesperson said:

“Our universities are committed to protecting free speech on campus. Robust academic debate and the opportunity to engage with challenging ideas are fundamental to the educational experience at UK universities.

“It is important that proposals in this Government policy paper, if taken forward, are evidence-based and proportionate, with due care taken to ensure academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Government should support existing work by universities and students’ unions to defend and maintain freedom of expression on campus, rather than adding unnecessary and burdensome bureaucracy.

“Evidence shows the overwhelming majority of speaker events go ahead, but it is right that we are constantly vigilant to threats to campus free speech. We support efforts to help universities and students’ unions protect free expression and broaden the range of views students are exposed to, including recent student-led proposals to extend the existing legal duty to protect free speech to students’ unions.”


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