Students should be made to feel 'uncomfortable' so they can learn, chair of the Office for Students says

Camilla Turner
Protesters rally outside the National Union of Students to urge revision of its safe space & no-platform policies - Nick Edwards

Students should be made to feel “uncomfortable”, the incoming chair of the Office for Students has said, as he insists that the new watchdog will not curtail free speech.

Sir Michael Barber, who will head the new higher education regulator, has warned that those who try to limit discussion and debate for fear of offending their peers are embarking on a “slippery slope”.

He said that the OFS will adopt “the widest possible definition of freedom of speech: namely anything within the law”, and urged all universities to follow suit.

Writing in the Times Higher Educationmagazine, he said: “Ideally, we will never have to intervene, but if we do, it will be to widen freedom of speech rather than restrict it.”

Sir Michael went on to recount a conversation he had with a “well-informed student" on the topic of freedom of speech.

The student agreed the concept was important but added that “it might need to be limited in relation to questions of identity because otherwise it might make some people feel ‘uncomfortable’.”

Sir Michael said: “But ‘comfortable’ is the start of a slippery slope towards ‘complacent’ or ‘self-satisfied’. And doesn’t much of the most profound learning require discomfort?”

Universities Minister Jo Johnson Credit:  Ben Cawthra/REX Shutterstock

Last month Universities Minister Jo Johnson announced that universities must pledge to uphold free speech on campus or face being blacklisted by the OFS.

He said any that failed to protect freedom of speech could be fined, suspended or ultimately deregistered by the OFS.

The move is intended to force universities to challenge the culture of so-called safe spaces and to answer for the behaviour of student unions that “no platform” controversial speakers.

Sir Michael said: “This generation of students is demonstrably the best educated in history: hard-working, thoughtful, curious and ambitious. I feel a surge of optimism whenever I spend time with them.

“Then, just occasionally, I read or hear something that suggests a potential threat to the freedom of speech that underpins such optimism.”

The OFS, which was created by the Mr Johnson as part of an overhaul of the higher education system, will come into force in April next year. It will be responsible for public funding to universities and will have a series of conditions for registration, which institutions will have to meet if they want to retain their status as a university.

 Oxford University's chancellor said that “safe spaces and no-platforming policies at universities are "fundamentally offensive" Credit:  Francisco Martinez / Alamy

Earlier this month, Oxford University's chancellor said that “safe spaces and no-platforming policies at universities are "fundamentally offensive".

Chris Patten, a cross bench peer and former chair of the Conservative Party, said he feels "more strongly about this issue than almost any other at the moment".

He urged students to take a stand to protect free speech adding that those who do so should not be subjected to "fascistic behaviour" by their peers.

There have been a string of recent events at universities across the country where free speech appeared to be under attack. Sussex University’s free speech society was told by the students’ union that its inaugural guest must submit his speech in advance for vetting, in case it violates their safe space policy. Students said their speaker was effectively “no-platformed” due to a “prohibitive” list of restrictions imposed by the students' union.

It also emerged that King’s College London hired “safe space marshals” to police controversial speaker events on campus and be ready to take “immediate action” if anyone expresses opinions that breech the safe space policy.  Three marshals patrolled while the Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg addressed students, at the invitation of the university's Conservative Society.