Government to impose new free speech regulations on universities

Image credit: Policy Exchange

Sam Gyimah, minister for Higher Education, has announced government plans to synthesize the "inconsistent" and "myriad regulations that overlap" current regulations on free speech on campus into one cohesive set of guidance measures. Describing the new measures as "a new chapter" in the history of higher education, the first rules since the imposition of free speech duty in 1986 will prevent universities from banning controversial speakers in the interest of debate and free discourse. 

According to the Higher Education minister, current policy allows universities to ban controversial speakers and encourages "bureaucrats or wreckers on campus" to shut down debates involving polarising figures. "A society in which peaple feel they have a legitimate right to stop someone expressing their views on campus simply because they are unfashionable or unpopular is rather chilling", said Gyimah at a higher education summit held earlier today. Among the guests were Matt Colling, the Home Office's director of Prevent, and Helen Stephenson, Chief Executive of the Charity Commission.

Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK, also attended the seminar, though he is expected to disagree with Gyimah on the plans, stating that the recent parliamentary enquiry found no systemic problems with free speech at British universities.

Gyimah's current plans would involve a binding common code of practise on free speech to be used by both universities and students, though the proposed legislation has faced a great amount of backlash from the university community with many questioning how the policy could be put into practice. The Office for Students, set up last year by Gmiyah, would have the power to publicly shame or fine any institution it believed was not working to uphold free speech.

"I've always been clear that free speech, the free exchange of ideas within the law, is a vital part of the university experience", said Gmiyah in a video posted to Twitter. "And that is why I want to see all higher education institutions act to promote free speech, dampen hostility to free speech in some places, but also to promote the diversity of thought that is needed on campus." 

Wes Streeting MP tweeted: "Why does Sam Gyimah want students' unions to host the like of Hizb ut-Tahir, MPAC and the EDL? Why is he meddling in students' unions' policies a government priority?"

But Gyimah defended the decision, saying that legal free speech is "core to the free exchange of ideas" and overall university experience, adding that the new policy was based on recommendations from the enquiry by the Select Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR), which concerns itself on human rights issues in the UK, chaired by Harriet Harman.

The Committee's inital findings describe free speech as "a foundation for democracy" and emphasised the legitimacy of protest, but criticised the use of "intimidatory" tactics such as "mask wearing, filming and breaking into events" as "totally unacceptable". However, it admitted that "we did not find the wholesale censorship of debate in universities which media coverage has suggested." Amatey Doku, former CUSU president and current NUS vice-president, agreed with the report's findings on issues with Prevent, stating that: "We [the NUS] remain committed to protecting free speech, and therefore hope that an urgent review into the chilling effect of the Prevent duty, as recommended by the JCHR report, will be enacted as part of this process."

blog comments powered by Disqus

Related Stories

In this section

Across the site

Best of the Rest