Line of microphones

@Wonkhe release a new report: 'Taking the Debate Forward' - freedom of speech and diverse political activity on campus 

The proposals are the product of a four month project led by a group of students’ unions that sought to interrogate and resolve ongoing concerns surrounding campus culture and the ability of students to engage freely in debate on campus.

The group – supported by Wonkhe, the home of the UK higher education debate – consulted with both students’ unions and higher education bodies, gathering extensive evidence and generating creative solutions to the challenges faced.

Its report 'Taking the debate forward' is launched today and proposes a new code for students’ unions which establishes and reinforces important principles on campus of political diversity and freedom of expression.

It also sets out a clear roadmap for the regulation of students’ union activity with clarity for those that wish to raise a complaint or concern.

The new code will:

  • Substantially adopt widely used principles within the free speech policy statement produced by the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago.
  • Set a goal of increasing the volume and diversity of debates and student political groups on campus, with all universities pledging to work with their SU to use networks and influence to set targets for expanding opportunities to meet and debate with important figures.
  • Propose that the National Union of Students, Universities UK and other sector bodies work together to identify how they might collaborate to streamline and support the process of attracting, contacting, risk assessing and researching external speakers, developing an online speakers’ pool in the process.
  • Set out basic standards that ensure that all students are informed of how they might obtain funding or support for a student group of any political stripe.
  • Set out the rare circumstances under which a speaker event may have been restricted by a students’ union or university in pursuit of wider policies, and the process for challenging or complaining about such a decision.
  • Formally adopt the requirements of the Education Act 1986 (Freedom of Speech) into students’ union activities, which requires that universities take reasonable steps to secure freedom of speech on campus within the law.
  • Require an annual review of external events and speaker policies, fed into the university, to gather feedback from users to ensure that processes are kept as rapid in execution and as simple to understand as possible.
  • Establish that in principle no event should be cancelled due to a society or SU not feeling able to meet security costs.
  • Set out with clarity the way in which students’ unions should practice compliance with charity law requirements which prohibit political campaigning and expenditure.

The group also proposes:

  • That Universities UK leads work in conjunction with NUS and SUs and other higher education representative bodies that specifically addresses the issue of protest and harassment (including in online spaces) to ensure that it is clear how students, external speakers and stakeholders might raise concerns about the conduct of campaigners.
  • Clarify the way in which the higher education regulator and ombudsperson will oversee these issues.

Students’ unions in the UK are central to the student experience of UK higher education. Yet concern has been expressed about their role in matters of political diversity and freedom of expression. There have been stories about bans on costumes, rules for democratic meetings, events featuring external speakers and so-called “trigger warnings”. Some suggest that some students’ unions have been involved in the “banning” or “no platforming” of speakers whose opinions their student leaders do not agree with.

Yet more often than not, students’ unions, guilds and associations and their clubs and societies are an important facilitator of freedom of speech and debate on campus. A survey of students’ unions in December 2020 carried out by the project found that in 2019-20, just 6 events from almost 10,000 involving an external speaker (0.06%) were cancelled – mainly for failing to follow basic administrative processes.

Sector Response to 'Taking the Debate Forward'

Michelle Donelan 100x100Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said:

“It is clear that we must strengthen free speech in higher education and this government is committed to doing so, along with action from university leaders and students unions. We welcome that this group of students unions is championing free speech, speaking up for the majority of students who want campuses to be places of open and honest debate, as they should be.”

Launching the proposals, Kwame Asamoah Kwarteng, General Secretary at the University of Manchester Students Union said: “Our project has demonstrated that far from the caricature, students and their unions believe that freedom of speech within the law is an important principle. Under our proposals students and wider society can be assured that universities and their students’ unions will work to widen debate and challenge, rather than to narrow it.”

Commenting further, Sunday Blake, President at Exeter Guild of Students said:

“l will always defend the right of students to oppose, protest and debate others’ views – which is almost always about helping our articulate, intelligent, and astute students to engage in debate. It’s incredibly rare that universities or students’ unions have to restrict a speaker – and our proposals will make clear why and how that happens.”

Commenting on the proposals, the President of the University of Surrey Students’ Union, Lizzie Rodulson said:

“Last year universities were set a challenge by Gavin Williamson – ‘If you can’t defend free speech, the Government will’. Students have risen to that challenge with proposals that mean all students can be sure that freedom of speech and debate can be a feature of their student experience.”

Further commenting on the proposals, the President of Worcester Students’ Union, Meg Price said:

“Much of the controversy on this issue is concentrated on a handful of the country’s most elite universities. It’s clear that not all students have access to the breadth or depth of debate, external speakers or controversial ideas as others – and that has to change.”

And raising issues of harassment and hate crime, Patrick O’Donnell, President at the University of York Students’ Union said: “Nobody should be subject to harassment on campus because of who they are or the views they hold. Our proposals will ensure that those with concerns about others’ conduct will be able to get them resolved swiftly and fairly.”

Larissa Kennedy 100x100Commenting on the proposals, NUS President Larissa Kennedy said:

“Students’ unions are bastions of freedom of expression in society – they support students to hold thousands of events each year that provide the opportunity to hear from a wide array of speakers. This work shows how fundamental freedom of expression is in higher education across the UK, and how we can all ensure that free speech, the right to be protected from discrimination and violence, and all other rights and freedoms are upheld.”

Addressing the proposed code, Russell Group Policy Manager Adam Clarke said: “Universities, students and government all want to protect free speech and ensure robust academic debate. Engaging with challenging ideas is a vital element of the academic experience in UK universities. The creation of a new free speech code with an explicit goal of increasing the volume and diversity of debates on campuses would help students’ unions go further in their efforts to defend and maintain freedom of expression.” 

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