Ben HaywardFebruary 18th
2021

Education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has announced new measures aimed at protecting ‘free speech’ on university campuses. 

Speaking of the ‘chilling effects unacceptable silencing and censoring have on university campuses’ Mr Williamson says the proposals are an attempt to strengthen academic freedom at universities in England, reports The Independent.

One such measure will be the appointment of a ‘free speech champion’ tasked with investigating potential breaches, such as no-platforming speakers or the dismissal of academics.

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Universities that wish to be registered in England and have access to public funding will also be required to adhere to a new free speech condition with the Office for Students (OfS) regulator given the power to impose fines on those who breach the condition.

Individuals who suffer losses from a breach of the new free speech duties such as being expelled, dismissed or demoted, will be able to seek compensation through the courts under the new legal measure.

On top of this, students’ unions will also be required to ensure lawful free speech is secured for members and visiting speakers.

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.

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“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.

While the move has been welcomed by some academics, the notion that free speech is being suppressed on campuses has been rejected by students’ unions.

Hillary Gyebi-Abiabo, vice president for higher education at the National Union of Students (NUS), said: “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.

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“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.”

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said: “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.”

A spokesperson for Universities UK (UUK) added that there are already ‘significant legal duties placed on universities’ to ensure freedom of speech is protected and universities are required to have a code of practice on free speech, but that they are awaiting more detail before commenting further. 

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