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Russell Group responds to HEPI free speech report

  • 28 June 2022
  • By Adam Clarke

On Thursday 7 July, HEPI is hosting a webinar to launch its new report on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller access to higher education. Book your free place here.

This blog was written by Adam Clarke, Communications Manager at the Russell Group.

Freedom of expression is not an optional extra for UK higher education. It is at the heart of the experience our universities provide. Russell Group members work incredibly hard to ensure students have every opportunity to engage with competing perspectives during their time at university.

The findings of HEPI’s latest polling on student attitudes towards freedom of expression provide the sector with real food for thought. While this is only a snapshot, looking at changes from previous polling we can see there are a number of worrying trends which underline the importance of universities working with students to ensure they understand the value of free speech, and that exposure to new ideas and sometimes controversial arguments is a vital part of their education.

We should be clear: protecting and promoting freedom of expression does not mean ignoring harassment or tolerating bullying. Our members make no apology for working to uphold the legal protections afforded our communities by the Equality Act and Public Sector Equality Duty

It does mean, however, accepting that people hold different views, and engaging in debates where appropriate. Controversial speakers exercising their free speech within the law and individuals or groups who protest against them both have a right to be heard. 

This is the basis on which Russell Group universities approach freedom of speech and academic freedom. Where, in exceptional circumstances, the law requires universities to apply restrictions, they do so in a manner mindful of the central importance of these principles to learning and research.

There are different views and perspectives on how we can demonstrate that freedom of speech and academic freedom are embedded within the UK higher education experience. The recommendations in HEPI’s report are balanced and reflect, in many cases, work that is already underway at our universities.

Free speech codes of practice and processes around events are already under regular review, with arrangements set to be beefed up by the requirements of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill. Universities are examining the information they provide new students on registration to ensure they understand academic norms, and our members work closely with students’ unions and others to ensure marginalised or vulnerable students can play a full and active role in debates on campus.

HEPI is also right that progress in this area requires the active engagement of senior leaders in building cultures that are mindful of the importance of free expression. Last year Russell Group Vice-Chancellors published a joint statement reiterating the commitment of their institutions to free speech and academic freedom.

Ultimately, you would hope discussions around how best to protect freedom of speech reflect the gravity of the issue and the importance of getting things right while managing competing legal duties. Unfortunately, this has not always been the case. Alarmist reporting which, amongst other things, has criticised universities for cancelling events which actually went ahead has not been helpful.

With the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill due to arrive in the House of Lords imminently, we have an opportunity to take some of the heat out of this issue and focus squarely on the practicalities of the way that universities work to protect freedom of speech.

There are a number of areas where carefully drafted amendments consistent with the spirit of the legislation would help avoid unintended consequences. This includes looking at the proposed statutory tort to minimise chances that increased legal exposure with no safeguards against vexatious or frivolous claims could disincentivise students’ unions from hosting controversial speakers. 

We also need to understand how the new Bill of Rights will interact with the Freedom of Speech bill to avoid new rules simply adding complexity without meaningfully improving the way we work to protect freedom of speech.

It is in everyone’s interest for universities and students’ unions to continue to be places where free and frank intellectual exchanges take place in a safe and secure environment. This report from HEPI is a helpful contribution to the debate over how we can best achieve that goal.

Book your place for the webinar on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller access to higher education here.

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