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Advance HE CEO Alison Johns: how our new guidance on protected beliefs will help on free speech issues

  • 16 May 2024
  • By Alison Johns
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Alison Johns, Chief Executive of Advance HE.

As the custodians of academic inquiry, universities themselves are well-placed to take difficult decisions to secure free speech, academic freedom, and protection from harassment on campus.

At a time when student protests are on the rise, new legislation and case law are emerging, and regulatory frameworks evolving, higher education leaders are increasingly confronted with the challenge of safeguarding free speech, academic freedom, and protection from harassment. Our response cannot be tentative. Hesitance risks eroding the credibility of higher education at a pivotal moment, as we are debating sector funding models.

As many colleagues are acutely aware, these decisions are among the most challenging a leader in higher education will face. Yet, they are but one item in a long list of pressing issues our members are facing. Fortunately, the UK’s legal framework offers a pathway for decisions that prioritise free speech and academic freedom while safeguarding against harassment and discrimination. This includes, under the Equality Act 2010, the right to hold and appropriately express or manifest religious or philosophical beliefs. Protected philosophical beliefs have been at the heart of recent court cases, such as anti-Zionism in the case of Miller and gender-critical feminism in the Phoenix case.

As was highlighted at a recent Advance HE and HEPI Parliamentary Seminar, the discourse around free speech, academic freedom and harassment is often framed as overly simplistic or as a mere balancing act. Reality is more complex. We must set policies that are not only well-conceived but also proportionate in their application, differentiate carefully between harassment and lawful speech, and take decisions that reflect our values of critical inquiry and inclusion. This may involve challenging the development of an ‘echo chamber’ in our institutions, or seriously grappling with what might reasonably constitute harassment on campus. This new, detailed guidance from Advance HE on protected beliefs can be a compass in these turbulent times for those responsible for taking these decisions on the ground.

The development of Advance HE’s guidance on protected beliefs has been a rigorous process, involving collaboration with legal experts and engagement with key sector stakeholders, including Universities UK, the Department for Education and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. This guidance clarifies the legal challenges institutions often face, for instance, concerning gender-critical feminism and trans inclusion. It underscores the importance of applying the law consistently to all staff and students, ensuring everyone can express their beliefs lawfully and be protected from harassment.

The guidance emphasises the ‘presumption in favour of free speech’ found in UK law and that there are only a handful of reasons that institutions might lawfully intervene in speech, including harassment under the Equality Act 2010 (or bullying not related to a protected characteristic). The guidance acknowledges that there will be times when a university judges a specific instance of speech as lawful and requiring protection, but that speech is perceived as offensive by some stakeholders. It is during these times that sector leadership becomes most valuable, helping institutions navigate the delicate balance between free expression and the appropriate protection of community members. Engaging in these decisions is the only path for institutions to secure legitimate academic inquiry and free expression, without undermining our commitment to inclusion.

The guidance does not dictate right from wrong; it recognises the contextual nature of decisions. It empowers members to navigate difficult scenarios and develop strong processes that help ensure any interventions in speech are lawful and proportionate.

Leadership in this context demands prudence, a nuanced consideration of individual cases, and the courage to make decisions that may not be universally popular. Acknowledging the legal risks and the uncertainties of a new regulatory environment is crucial, as is the willingness to navigate these complexities without shying away from the responsibilities of leadership to all of our staff and students.

Universities are centres of critical research and learning, not a town square or speakers’ corner. Engaging with stakeholders to enhance the quality of campus discourse is essential, so long as it is alongside taking all reasonably practicable steps to ensure lawful speech and academic freedoms are protected. This is where institutional values come into play. Embracing empathy, shared humanity, and respect without compromising critical inquiry and free speech is the hallmark of a thriving academic community.

This is a significant opportunity for HE leaders to champion the causes of free speech and inclusion, showcasing the sector’s ability to address societal challenges thoughtfully and effectively. By remembering the essential human element of research and teaching,  and in carefully adhering to the law, we can demonstrate the indispensable role that higher education plays in fostering a society that values academic rigour, diverse perspectives and robust debate.

The guidance documents are available on the Advance HE News + Views pages.

On 6 June, 12:30-14:00 BST, Advance HE has a member-only free interactive online Navigating Freedom of Speech for the Short and Long Term Governance Event  delivered in association with CUC, AHUA and UUK. Of interest to governors/trustees, Chairs, governance professionals and SU CEOs, it will support colleagues to understand the latest updates to Freedom of Speech regulation and identify and manage related risks strategically. 

Advance HE’s ‘Speak Out: Exploring Protected Beliefs and Free Speech in UK Higher Education’ virtual event on 19 June, explores this new Protected Beliefs guidance to protect and promote freedom of speech and protected beliefs, from ‘classroom to boardroom. Delegates from Advance HE member institutions benefit from a discounted price.

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