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Universities stepping up to promote free speech and academic freedom

  • 31 October 2022
  • By Steve West

As the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill returns to Parliament today, HEPI is running two blogs on the issue.

This blog was kindly contributed by Professor Steve West, President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West of England, Bristol (UWE).

Freedom of speech and academic freedom are central to the role and purpose of universities. Without freedom of speech and academic freedom, we would not be able to fulfil two of our most essential aims: the advancement of understanding and the pursuit of truth.

That may seem an obvious statement but, in the current context, it needs to be reaffirmed. 

Recent months and years have seen far greater scrutiny of the role of the higher education sector in promoting debate. However, for some, the long-held track record of universities for championing free speech and rigorous discussion has been called into question.

Indeed, our ability to act as facilitators of debate has been questioned so fervently that the Government has even undertaken to legislate in this area for universities in England. 

While many will question whether this is the biggest priority the Government could be considering when it comes to the higher education sector, it is worth reflecting on how we, as universities, could be more visibleand vocal in our support for the free exchange of ideas.

As vice-chancellors and leaders of our institutions, we have a duty to encourage debate and help teach people how to disagree well, and to ensure that this duty is understood by students, staff, and visitors alike. 

This is far from straightforward. While it is easy to talk glibly about defending free speech and academic freedom in the abstract, it is far harder to do so in real life, especially when the situation in question requires nuance. After all, the legal framework surrounding freedom of speech and academic freedom is complex. 

In navigating this landscape, universities must balance their obligations to protect free speech and academic freedom with other legal duties – equality law, the Prevent duty, and employment law, to name just a few. 

In other words, free speech is not absolute, but a freedom within the law. And precisely where that boundary falls is contested and subject to significant debate depending on the circumstances. 

To help unpick this, UUK – working in partnership with GuildHE and Advance HE – held a series of workshops in which we sought to explore some of the practical, real-world challenges universities face when trying to promote free speech alongside other duties. 

The sessions were attended by people working right across the higher education sector, ranging from vice-chancellors and other senior leaders and academics to lawyers, students’ union presidents, equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) practitioners, and human resource professionals.

We heard from a diverse and challenging range of opinions and voices, but one theme was clear throughout: universities work hard to protect freedom of speech and academic freedom – and want to do more to actively promote it. However, this needs to be done in tandem with work to promote EDI, as well as maintaining a zero-tolerance towards harassment and discrimination. 

After all, it is right that students and staff are exposed to different ideas and perspectives – including those they may find offensive – but it is only by joining together work on free speech and academic freedom with efforts to promote good relations on campus that we can create a culture in which everyone feels genuinely able to express themselves. 

Getting the balance right is far from easy, particularly given incidents relating to free speech and academic freedom often serve as flashpoints for wider debates and discussions in society.

We often see debates and tensions arise between different groups on university campuses. These tend to be reported as competing rights, such as the right to free speech versus the rights afforded to individuals to protect them from harm or discrimination. 

Recent HEPI polling helps underline these tensions. Findings suggest that 61 per cent of students say that ‘when in doubt’ their own university ‘should ensure all students are protected from discrimination rather than allow unlimited free speech’ (up from 37 per cent in 2016).

While such findings no doubt reflect the progress universities are making in ensuring our campuses better reflect society and the world around us, it is important that we make clear that EDI initiatives and free speech do not sit in tension with one another. Indeed, the former enables the latter for so many marginalised groups on campus. 

So, although balancing different duties can be a big challenge for universities, it should not bring into question the importance with which we regard free speech and academic freedom. 

That is why today UUK is publishing a statement reaffirming the sector’s commitment to upholding and promoting freedom of speech and academic freedom, alongside preventing harassment and fostering good relations between different groups. 

We are proud to make this commitment publicly, alongside GuildHE, Advance HE, the National Union of Students, and the Committee of University Chairs – reflecting the seriousness with which this issue is viewed across the sector.  

These are not just words. We will be encouraging universities to develop and update their own codes and practices in relation to free speech and academic freedom.

Some of this work is already well underway, for example:

  • following extensive consultation, the University of Nottingham have updated their position on Free Speech and Academic Freedom;
  • Lancaster University have included a new clause within their student registration process to promote the value and importance of free speech, alongside a related University Executive Board statement on the institution’s approach to academic freedom and free speech; and 
  • the University of York plans to develop a Charter for Free Speech for the University community and has also embedded the principle of free speech in the University’s revised Royal Charter.

The statement will also form the basis for further resources and outputs, which we hope will support our members to engage with some of the important issues raised in the roundtable discussions. 

UUK will also continue to engage with government on the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill – which is due to be returning to Parliament this week – to help bring clarity to this confusing landscape and ensure any legislation is proportionate, both now and in the future.

As we say in our statement, through working together we can continue to oppose harassment and discrimination, while also remaining steadfast in our commitment to the pursuit of truth and the free exchange of ideas. 

It is only through fostering an honest dialogue and healthy debate that we advance understanding.

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1 comment

  1. Robin Leslie says:

    This is a reasonable and balanced restatement of the place of free speech and relationships in Universities which must be practiced in a wider moral framework which includes the pursuit of excellence, the virtues and the Common Good.

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