Arif Ahmed: is England’s new free speech tsar heretic or hero?

Supporters say new director will not be afraid to use new powers to ensure free speech duties are followed, but many still question the need for such a position

June 6, 2023
Arif Ahmed
Source: Jean-Luc Benazet
Arif Ahmed

England’s first ever free speech “tsar” has been hailed as a champion of academic freedom by his supporters and someone who will rightfully “ruffle some feathers” in the sector.

But critics have warned that philosopher Arif Ahmed’s appointment will open the door to more outside interference in the running of universities, based on an overblown reaction to a “non-existent crisis”.

The newly announced director for freedom of speech and academic freedom at the Office for Students (OfS) will be responsible for implementing the country’s new legislation, which requires universities and students’ unions to protect and promote free speech on campuses.

Bryn Harris, chief legal counsel at the Free Speech Union, noted that Mr Ahmed had so far been cautious not to reveal any of his plans for the role, and he expected him to approach the position with similar care.

“I don’t think he’ll be anarchistic or anarchical, but I think some universities will be in shock when they come up against a principled, well-thought-out and intellectually consistent approach to free speech, and it might ruffle some feathers,” he said.

Mr Harris said such a shock could result in Professor Ahmed facing stiff opposition from some in the sector – both from “activist” universities and ideologically opposed civil servants.

In announcing the appointment, the OfS highlighted that Professor Ahmed, who has been a fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge since 2015, would bring “an important academic perspective” to the role.

Gill Evans, emeritus professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at Cambridge, said Professor Ahmed’s experience so far had been in an institution with a “solid underpinning of constitutional freedom of speech”.

She said the first thing he needed to do was speak to different universities as he tried to make the role fit with the “messy reality of university life. Professor Evans added that the “badly drafted and pretty vague” legislation meant he would have to do some interpreting of his own.

Many in the sector remain to be convinced of the need for such a role at all. Anne Corbett, a senior associate at LSE Consulting, warned that the bill had created a “slippery slope” by letting the government interfere in the inner workings of universities, with “no evidence” that the issue needed urgent legislative attention.

Will Davies, a sociologist and political economist at Goldsmiths, University of London, said the idea of a “free speech crisis” was one that was “overblown” by certain right-wing newspapers and was simply a “Tory hobby horse”.

“I don’t know what regulation is expected to do in this situation, other than look like something has been done about these extremely high-profile cases such as Kathleen Stock,” said Professor Davies, adding that he saw the role as “a bit of a gimmick”.

Professor Davies said he felt the Conservative government’s support for “academic heretics” such as Professor Ahmed was a way of playing to the newspapers and putting pressure on the culture of higher education.

Whether he is needed or not, Professor Ahmed will be equipped with new powers to fine or suspend the registration of universities that do not comply with their duties under the new act.

Mr Harris said Professor Ahmed would probably not wait for complaints but instead take a proactive approach, paying close scrutiny to university policies and forcing universities to stand up to students – which “is the last thing they want to do”.

“If they fail to do that – when it’s a reasonable step they could take – they will potentially be before Arif, and potentially before the courts.”

Jonathan Grant, founding director of Different Angles, a consultancy that focuses on the social impact of universities and research, said much would depend on Professor Ahmed’s approach to the role.

“If he adopts a ‘watchdog’ approach, I am not too sure it will be that successful because universities and student unions will become risk-averse.

“But if he adopts a ‘guide dog’ approach, helping to curate challenging and difficult conversations on campus in a safe, tolerant and respectful way, then the appointment could be very impactful.”

Jo Burton, head of higher education policy at the Russell Group, said the mission group was hoping for a free speech director who would work with the sector to build a new system of protections that was robust, easy to navigate for students, staff and speakers, and was proportionate.

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Reader's comments (2)

Speech should, must be, free in all but a few highly specific areas - no slander, no incitement to discrimmination (by race, age, sex etc), or of course violence - but everywhere else, free. Academia has to ruffel feathers, challenge beliefs, or it's not academia in any meaningful sense. As for so-called 'trigger warnings', whatever happened to "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words never hurt me".
Speech should indeed be free, but shouting "Fire!" in a crowded building is not a good idea... We need to grow up and accept that not everyone shares every opinion, and in a spirit of free and open debate be ready to discuss and disagree with opinions that we do not share.