A 'free speech champion' could be appointed at universities - but what does it mean?

Tuesday, 16th February 2021, 1:02 pm
Updated Tuesday, 16th February 2021, 1:02 pm
A 'free speech champion' could be appointed at universities - but what does it mean? (Photo: Shutterstock)

The proposed introduction of a so-called ‘free speech champion’ on university campuses is part of a series of measures intended to strengthen academic freedom in England.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced the proposals recently, as he warned against a “chilling effect” of “unacceptable silencing and censoring” on university campuses as he unveiled tougher measures to protect free speech.

What is a free speech champion?

The proposed free speech champion would be responsible for investigating potential infringements on campus, such as a blanket ban on certain speakers, or the dismissal of academics.

The Education Secretary would appoint a “free speech and academic freedom champion” to the Office for Students board, and they would be able to recommend the watchdog impose fines on universities.

Other proposed measures by Mr Williamson intended to protect free speech on university campuses include:

  • Universities would be legally required to actively promote free speech
  • Student unions would also have to take steps to ensure lawful free speech for members and visiting speakers
  • A free speech condition placed on universities in return for being registered in England and accessing public funds
  • The Office for Students regulator could fine institutions if they breach the rules
  • People could seek compensation through the courts if they suffer a loss (such as being expelled, dismissed or demoted) as a result of the rules being broken

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.”

Mixed response from education sector

The National Union of Students (NUS) said there is “no evidence” of a freedom of speech crisis on campus.

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, NUS vice-president for higher education, 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."

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, which represents staff at universities, said: "In reality the biggest threats to academic freedom and free speech come not from staff and students, nor from so-called 'cancel culture', but from ministers' own attempts to police what can and cannot be said on campus."

She added: “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" were also a barrier to free speech.”

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, 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."

The Russell Group, which runs some of the UK’s leading universities including the University of Edinburgh and the University of Cambridge, said: "It is important that proposals in this government policy paper, if taken forward, are evidence-based and proportionate, with due care taken to ensure academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

"Government should support existing work by universities and students' unions to defend and maintain freedom of expression on campus, rather than adding unnecessary and burdensome bureaucracy."