Top universities vow to protect free speech and academic freedom on campuses

Eleanor Busby, PA Education Correspondent
·3-min read

Top British universities have pledged to protect free speech following concerns from ministers about censorship and silencing on campuses.

The Russell Group, which represents traditionally the most selective institutions in the UK, has said its members will continue to safeguard academic freedom and freedom of speech.

It comes after Education Secretary Gavin Williamson warned against a “chilling effect” of “unacceptable silencing and censoring” on campuses as he unveiled tougher measures to protect free speech earlier this year.

The statement of principles from the Russell Group, which represents 24 of the UK’s leading universities, highlights work already done to facilitate academic debate, support diverse research and defend free speech.

The statement, backed by vice-chancellors at institutions including Oxford and Cambridge, says: “Facilitating an environment where all students and staff are able to inquire, study, and discuss is a responsibility our universities take extremely seriously.

“Russell Group universities work closely with staff, students’ unions and other organisations to defend and maintain freedom of expression on campus. Speaker events addressing diverse views on complex issues go ahead every week at universities across the UK.”

It adds: “In such an environment, the ideas and views of different members of university communities will naturally often come into conflict.

“Our universities provide a wide range of fora where free and frank intellectual exchanges take place and the diverse views of individuals are tolerated, whilst also assuring the safety of students, staff and members of the public.”

Mr Williamson said the Russell Group’s principles were a “positive step in the right direction”, but he has called on all universities to look at what they can do to further protect freedom of speech on campus.

In February, Mr Williamson announced a series of proposals to strengthen academic freedom at universities in England, including the appointment of a “free speech champion” who will investigate potential infringements, such as no-platforming speakers or dismissal of academics.

Under the plans, a new free speech condition would be placed on universities for them to be registered in England and access public funding, and the Office for Students (OfS) regulator would have the power to impose fines on institutions if they breached the condition.

Individuals would be able to seek compensation through the courts if they suffered loss from a breach of the free speech duties – such as being expelled, dismissed or demoted – under a new legal measure.

Gavin Williamson
Gavin Williamson (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

The intervention came after the University of Cambridge said in December that its proposed statement on free speech would no longer require staff and students to be “respectful” of differing views after academics argued that calling for respect could undermine academic freedom.

Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, said: “Free speech and academic freedom are core values for our universities who work hard to create an environment where a diverse range of views and ideas can be aired and debated across all disciplines.

“Disagreement is a fundamental part of debate and has been key to advancing knowledge and gaining different perspectives on everything from ethics and history to genetics and theoretical physics.

“Our universities will always champion the importance of free speech, uphold the legal protections already in place and, if Government feels it is necessary to enhance protections further, we will work with them to find proportionate solutions.

“This statement underlines our determination to ensure campuses remain places where students and staff are exposed to a diversity of ideas and views. We hope the Government recognise that and works with us so any new measures reflect the work already being done.”

Mr Williamson said: “Free speech underpins our democratic society and our universities must be places where students and academics can express themselves freely, challenge ideas and form their own world views.

“We are committed to upholding these values, and I welcome these principles from the Russell Group as a positive step in the right direction.

“All universities and colleges should think hard about their own policies, and what they can do to further protect freedom of speech and academic freedom on campus.”