The Joint Committee for Human Rights (JCHR) has today (15 March 2018) published on its website a report prepared by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) into the free speech policies of UK universities.

Given growing concern about the perceived suppression of free speech on campuses around the country, the report analyses a sample of policies from UK higher education institutions to determine whether they assist free speech or are likely to frustrate it.

Intended to assist the JCHR to evaluate the practicality and efficacy of existing free speech policies formulated and employed by UK universities, the report uncovers some worrying inconsistencies. It finds:

  • not all universities have updated their codes of practice on freedom of speech following the implementation of the Prevent Duty in August 2015, with some policies dating back to 2010;
  • not all universities agree on the definition of what constitutes a meeting to which policies on freedom of speech apply – some suggest they apply only to larger gatherings (like lectures or cultural events) while others say they can apply to meetings of three people or more;
  • free speech laws in Catholic higher education institutions may come into conflict with Canon Law in sacred spaces; and
  • loopholes can also occur in the law in areas where institutions deem their policies on free speech not to apply, such as during academic teaching, sporting or cultural events, trade union meetings or committee meetings.

Most strikingly, the report finds universities largely tend to see their codes of conduct as applying to students’ unions. This is in stark contrast to the advice issued by the representative group Universities UK, which argues that student unions are legally separate bodies from universities and not directly subject to the legal duty relating to free speech.

Dr Diana Beech, HEPI Director of Policy and Advocacy and author of the report says:

It was an honour to be commissioned by the JCHR to conduct this research. Recent controversy about the perceived suppression of free speech in some of the UK’s leading universities suggests there may be a mismatch between what universities are expected to protect in their policies on freedom of speech and the realities of how these policies are being rolled out on the ground.

The fact that some universities’ free speech policies have not been updated in light of recent changes to the law is alarming. University managers and boards clearly need to ensure they are reviewing their policies regularly to ensure they are operating according to the latest legislation.

It is also worrying that confusion exists over the exact remit of freedom of speech policies between universities and students’ unions. There is a clear need for institutions to work with staff and students to clarify how these policies apply to them. This entails ensuring free speech policies and associated materials are easily accessible to all who require them.

The full report can be accessed here.

Notes for editors:

  1. This research was submitted to the JCHR on 9 February 2018.
  2. The sample size selected for this analysis is 20. Codes of conduct on freedom of speech have been chosen from institutions which reflect the diversity of the UK higher education sector, taking into account geographical differences, institutional types, sizes and mission group affiliations (if applicable).
  3. HEPI is the UK’s only think tank specialising in higher education. It is a non-partisan charity and is supported by the majority of universities across the country. In 2016, HEPI published the report Keeping Schtum?: What students think of free speech, illustrating our prior work on freedom of speech in universities.