Free speech must be ‘centre stage’, urges Oxford’s vice-chancellor

Prof Irene Tracey wants the university to have learned lessons from last year's no-platform rows
Prof Irene Tracey wants the university to have learned lessons from last year's no-platform rows - Ian Wallman

Oxford’s vice-chancellor has returned to a free speech row at the university in her annual address to mark the start of the academic year.

Free speech has been “centre stage” this year, Prof Irene Tracey said in her annual oration to the university.

“I have been clear about our role in the university sector to protect free speech: it is core to how we teach subjects and expose students to different views; and it also goes hand in hand with our commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion,” she said.

Prof Tracey also said the university must do more to support trans students threatened with abuse in the wake of the Kathleen Stock row.

She said she was “deeply saddened to learn of the abusive and threatening language and behaviours that our trans community suffered this year”.

She added: “We should have done more to support them; rest assured lessons were learned.”

The Oxford LGBTQ+ society claimed earlier this year that it had received “hateful, threatening, homophobic and transphobic messages” after it urged the Oxford Union to deplatform Dr Stock over her views.

Trans ‘fiction’

Dr Stock, a leading gender-critical feminist, has said that the claim that “transwomen are women” is a fiction, and has argued that spaces where women undress and sleep should remain “genuinely single-sex”.

A row over her appearance at the Oxford Union in May engulfed the university, with Rishi Sunak intervening to say “a free society requires free debate” and insist her invitation “should stand”.

The talk went ahead, but was temporarily suspended when police were forced to remove a protester who glued their hand to the debating chamber floor.

The vice-chancellor also used her speech to call for a “cross party root-and-branch review of the business model for how we fund the higher education system in Britain”.

She said: “We have a cost-of-living crisis for staff and students with food, rent and mortgage costs going up and yet maintenance loans and salaries lower in real terms. And we have a business model to fund our great British universities which is not fit for purpose.”

Prof Tracey, a neuroscientist, also announced the launch of a pilot programme to allow undergraduates from science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), humanities and social sciences backgrounds to come together to enhance their critical thinking, communication, numeracy and data analysis skills.

It comes after she warned a year ago of a “great divide” that A-level choices bring when pupils specialise early in humanities or STEM, which means some arts students have poor numeracy skills while some science students are poor communicators.