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Government Proposed ‘Free Speech Champions’ Met with Student and Staff Backlash

By Deirbhile Ní Bhranáin, MA Media and Development

Last month, the UK government announced its proposal to install ‘free speech champions’ in institutes of Higher Education. The measures, which the Education Secretary announced mid-February, aim to strengthen free speech and ‘end the practice of ‘silencing’ on campuses. 

The legislation proposes to introduce a ‘free speech condition’ to universities and other post-secondary education institutes for them to be able to access public funding. The Office for Students, England’s Higher Education regulator, would be granted legal power to impose financial sanctions for ‘breach’ of the condition. 

These legal duties also extend to institution management and Student Unions, who would have the power to ensure that lawful free speech is secured for members, academics, and visiting speakers.

In addition to these measures, a ‘Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion’ would be appointed to investigate potential breaches of the law. 

In a letter of introduction to the policy document, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson stated that ‘strong, robust action’ should be taken against breaches of free speech. 

The guidelines for protection of free speech, which universities would be encouraged to follow, are laid out in the policy document released on 16 February. These guidelines will ‘set minimum standards for free speech codes of practice’, and will ‘ensure’ that academic freedoms are upheld to a high standard. 

The proposal has been met with varying degrees of skepticism both within and outside the government. Labour shadow education secretary Kate Green commented that by proposing these measures, the government is initiating a culture war to distract from its recent failures.

Several former education secretaries also shared their thoughts, with some former ministers voicing concerns about how ‘heavy-handed’ the policy seems. 

Others expressed concern that the government recognised identity politics as a popular issue and were now using it to wage a ‘culture war,’ with one university chancellor expressing concern that this policy will set ‘the young people’ further against the government.

Strong proponents of the proposition include a professor from Oxford University who stated ‘this policy paper by the Department of Education is a very welcomed step towards ensuring that viewpoint diversity is protected in British universities.’ 

“National Union of Students says there is ‘no evidence’ of a freedom of speech crisis on campus.”

On the other hand, The National Union of Students told the BBC that there is ‘no evidence’ of a freedom of speech crisis on campuses. Further, a spokesperson from the University and College Union, which represents university staff, contextualised the issue, speaking of how a failure to ‘get to grips with the endemic job insecurity and managerialist approaches’ are also a barrier to free speech, as it means that ‘academics are less able to speak truth to power.’
Dr Dina Matar, who lectures at the Centre for Global Media at SOAS, commented that ‘in assigning a free speech champion on campuses with reporting duties to government, the policy provides the opportunity for interference in university governance, [as well as] staff and students’ lives. Worse, it might accentuate differences and promote an atmosphere of hostility and fear, a perfect recipe for ‘unfree’ speech and intimidation to flourish in digital echo chambers and filter bubbles.’ She went on to say that ‘ignoring these possibilities is short-sighted and dangerous.’

Speaking to VICE Magazine, Chloe, a student at UCL asked ‘why is this the priority in our current environment?’ She also said it is ‘so confusing that they’re pushing this now especially since no one’s at university right now. Most of us are either studying from home and we’re not able to do events on campus anyway.’

The government will continue to work alongside the education sector to lay out the next steps for legislation.

Photo caption: Increased legal measures surrounding freedom of speech may, ironically, result in ‘unfree’ speech, says SOAS lecturer. (Credit: wiredforlego via Flickr)

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