Education Secretary warns against 'silencing' on campuses as he unveils free speech plan

16 February 2021, 00:03

Gavin Williamson announced a series of proposals to strengthen academic freedom at universities in England
Gavin Williamson announced a series of proposals to strengthen academic freedom at universities in England. Picture: PA

By Megan White

The Education Secretary has warned against a "chilling effect" of "unacceptable silencing and censoring" on university campuses as he unveiled tougher measures to protect free speech.

Gavin Williamson announced a series of proposals to strengthen academic freedom at universities in England, including the appointment of a "free speech champion" who will investigate potential infringements, such as no-platforming speakers or dismissal of academics.

A new free speech condition would be placed on universities for them to be registered in England and access public funding, and the Office for Students (OfS) regulator would have the power to impose fines on institutions if they breached the condition.

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The strengthened legal duties would also extend to student unions, which would have to take steps to ensure lawful free speech is secured for members and visiting speakers.

Individuals would be able to seek compensation through the courts if they suffered loss from a breach of the free speech duties - such as being expelled, dismissed or demoted - under a new legal measure.

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Mr Williamson said: "Free speech underpins our democratic society and our universities have a long and proud history of being places where students and academics can express themselves freely, challenge views and cultivate an open mind.

"But I am deeply worried about the chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring. That is why we must strengthen free speech in higher education, by bolstering the existing legal duties and ensuring strong, robust action is taken if these are breached."

Under the plans, universities would be legally required to actively promote free speech.

The Education Secretary would appoint a "free speech and academic freedom champion" to the OfS board and they would be able to recommend the watchdog imposes fines on universities.

The Department for Education said the next steps for legislation will be set out in due course.

Tom Simpson, associate fellow at centre-right think tank Policy Exchange, and an associate professor of philosophy and public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, said: "This policy paper by the Department of Education is a very welcome step towards ensuring that viewpoint diversity is protected in British universities.

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"As Cambridge University's recent Senate House vote shows, there is a substantial majority of academics who favour academic freedom.

"The problem, as Policy Exchange's research has explored, is that a very online culture allows the views of a minority to exert disproportionate influence on administrators, and to exert a chilling effect on other academics.

"Promoting a norm of political non-discrimination, and incentivising administrators to do what they are already legally obliged to do, is a crucial step towards ensuring a culture of free discourse in our universities."

In December, the University of Cambridge announced that its proposed statement on free speech would no longer require staff and students to be "respectful" of differing views following an intervention from academics who said calling for respect could undermine academic freedom.

University and College Union (UCU) general secretary Jo Grady said: "It is extraordinary that in the midst of a global pandemic the Government appears more interested in fighting phantom threats to free speech than taking action to contain the real and present danger which the virus poses to staff and students.

"In reality the biggest threats to academic freedom and free speech come not from staff and students, or from so-called 'cancel culture', but from ministers' own attempts to police what can and cannot be said on campus, and a failure to get to grips with the endemic job insecurity and managerialist approaches which mean academics are less able to speak truth to power."

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, vice president for higher education at the National Union of Students (NUS), said: "Students' unions are committed to freedom of expression and are the very home of rigorous debate and new ideas.

"There is no evidence of a freedom of expression crisis on campus, and students' unions are constantly taking positive steps to help facilitate the thousands of events that take place each year."

She added: "We recognise this announcement as an opportunity for us to prove once and for all that there is not an extensive problem with freedom of expression across higher education."

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said: "Free speech and academic freedom are essential to teaching and research. Universities and colleges have legal duties to protect both free speech and academic freedom, and their compliance with these responsibilities forms an important part of their conditions of registration with the OfS.

"We will ensure that the changes that result from today's proposals reinforce these responsibilities and embed the widest definition of free speech within the law."

A Universities UK (UUK) spokeswoman said: "UK universities are committed to promoting and protecting free speech, which we see as critical to the success of this country's higher education system.

"There are already significant legal duties placed on universities to uphold freedom of speech and universities are required to have a code of practice on free speech and to update this regularly.

"While it is important that universities continually reflect on ways they can further enhance and support free speech, we await further details on the proposals - including about the role of the free speech champion - before we can comment further about the implications for university and student union activities."