Higher Education Regulator Will Make 'Freedom Of Speech' Its Priority Next Year
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The Office for Students (OfS) has said it will make freedom of speech on university campuses one of its top priorities for next year.
The move comes despite the regulator receiving only around 60 complaints on the subject in the last four years - compared with 232 notifications for all categories in 2021 alone.
The OfS’s chief regulator, Susan Lapworth, said students’ experience of higher education in England could be affected by the attitudes towards issues such as freedom of speech at the institutions they attend.
She said: “We note the frequent press reports of incidents that cause concern in this area, alongside the 60 or so notifications we have received on free speech issues since 2018.
“This is not simply about high-profile cases where speakers have been barred or turned away on the basis of their public statements - although a small number of such cases is too many.
“We are concerned about the perception that attitudes and cultural assumptions in the academic environment mean that discussions aren’t mooted, topics are tacitly seen as off limits or people who disagree legitimately on issues may feel silenced.”
The regulator will begin surveying both students and academic staff on their opinions concerning free speech from next year, with the OfS expected to gain new powers to regulate freedom of speech issues involving universities and student unions, reports the Guardian.
In the OfS’s 2021-22 annual report, Lapworth said universities must balance free speech with ‘careful consideration of potentially competing legal rights and obligations’ such as the discrimination and harassment protections embodied in the Equality Act.
Hollie Chandler, head of policy for the Russell Group of universities, said: “Given the importance of free speech, it is right that we keep protections under review. But regulatory action needs to be taken on the basis of accurate data rather than partial analysis or inflammatory stories.
“Contrary to some media reports, the overwhelming majority of events featuring controversial speakers go ahead successfully. As the OfS takes on additional free speech responsibilities, its independence and ability to make impartial judgments will be critical to ensure students, staff and the sector more broadly have confidence in its approach.”
Lapworth said the OfS is also consulting over how universities deal with harassment and sexual misconduct on campus, and will be conducting further research, including a pilot survey of students. “We have minimal information about instances of sexual misconduct, and their prevalence in different universities or colleges,” she said.
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