The Office for Students will make freedom of speech and “off-limits” subjects on university campuses one of its top priorities for next year, despite the regulator receiving only around 60 complaints over the last four years.
Susan Lapworth, the OfS’s chief regulator, said students’ experience of higher education in England was “not just measured through statistics,” and could be affected by the attitudes towards issues such as freedom of speech at the institutions they attend.
“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,” Lapworth said.
“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 60 complaints or notifications from students or their representatives since 2018 are in contrast to the 232 notifications for all categories received by the OfS in 2021 alone.
The higher education regulator for England is to begin surveying students on their impressions regarding free speech from next year, as well as polling academic staff for the first time.
The OfS is expected to gain new powers to regulate freedom of speech issues involving universities and student unions, as a result of legislation going through parliament. But the bill has been significantly altered in the Lords, with peers removing a clause that would have created a new statutory right to sue universities by those who felt their freedom of speech had been infringed.
But Lapworth – introducing the OfS’s 2021-22 annual report – said universities needed to balance free speech with “careful consideration of potentially competing legal rights and obligations,” such as the protections against unlawful discrimination and harassment in the Equality Act.
Hollie Chandler, head of policy for the Russell Group of universities, said that while the OfS was right to highlight the issue, university leaders were already “playing an active role” in upholding freedom of speech on campuses across the UK.
“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,” Chandler said.
“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,” Lapworth said.
The regulator said that online or digital learning had “an increasing and innovative role” in higher education, but warned: “Where digital delivery is poor or used as a cheap substitute for traditional teaching, it undermines the credibility of the good, and can reduce the sense of community that comes from getting together in person.”