Report urges ‘what works’ centre for English campus free speech

Regulator must go beyond enforcing new legislation and offer universities guidance on practical approaches to ensuring diverse views are heard on campuses, academics conclude

September 5, 2023
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England needs a new independent free speech body or programme tasked with investigating and evaluating various approaches universities could take to ensuring that diverse views are expressed on campuses, according to a report.

The paper, published by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, suggests that the government and the Office for Students (OfS) need to go beyond regulation to invest in a “what works” initiative that tests possible interventions on a larger scale than the sporadic approaches taken by individual universities so far.

Measures highlighted in the report include the co-creation of classroom discussion guidelines by teachers and students, “active listening” training, initiatives that bring together those with polarised views and the adoption of codes of conduct, similar to the Chicago Principles.

Bobby Duffy, the director of the institute and one of the report’s authors, said current efforts to support free speech “tend to be a series of disconnected individual initiatives, with little evidence of what actually works in different circumstances”.

He added that “we need to invest in understanding this better” to truly support free speech in universities and to give students the “environment and tools that they need”.

Drawing on the results of a survey the institute previously conducted among students, the report concludes that “the issue of freedom of speech in higher education is not as bad as is sometimes made out to be – but there are still worrying signs of a shift in which students increasingly think that some lawful views cannot be expressed in their universities”.

Thirty-four per cent of undergraduate students thought free speech was under threat at their institutions in 2022 – up from 23 per cent in 2019.

Media attention on “cancel culture” has potentially led some to overestimate the extent of the problem, it adds, but more can be done to address the perception that students appear to feel unable to express their views.

The government’s main method of dealing with the issue thus far, the report says, has been the introduction of the Freedom of Speech (Higher Education) Act, which eventually became law earlier this year after taking two years to get through Parliament.

This “focus on regulation has distracted us from a whole range of non-legislative practical measures universities could put in place”, the report suggests, with institutions left to pursue initiatives on their own without any sector-wide guidance and support.

A precedent for the OfS’ creating a new body to test interventions and develop recommendations for best practice has already been set, the authors point out, as it established and initially funded the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO).

They say that creating a similar body that deals with free speech could be one of the first acts of the recently appointed director for freedom of speech and academic freedom, Arif Ahmed, as he begins to shape the regulator’s response to enforcing its new powers under the act.

Professor Duffy said “our new report shows that the debates around the act, while often technical, are far from neutral, where starting points on broader ‘culture war’ issues hugely colour assessments of the scale and nature of the problem.

“This means that the challenge to free speech in universities is often either overstated or too readily dismissed, when the reality is it’s not nearly as bad as often made out, but there is enough of a signal in the trends to suggest that positive interventions to support free speech should be a focus.”

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