• Sun. Jul 14th, 2024

Serious cause for concern at university, says new Free Speech Officer  

ByLara van Vorst

Oct 27, 2023
Rows of blue seats facing a desk with a computer on it

In his first speech as the Office for Students’ (OfS) new Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom, Arif Ahmed raised concerns about the state of free speech at UK universities. 

On Monday, 9 October, Ahmed spoke at King’s College London and explained why free speech is integral to higher education. 

Ahmed cited his belief that the ability to have an open debate in the classroom challenges students to question their beliefs and assumptions and teaches them to think for themselves. 

In recent years, there have been widespread concerns that free speech in the UK’s academic environment has been declining. 

The OfS released a survey in which 86 per cent of students felt they could express their views freely, leaving 1 in 7 students feeling like they cannot. 

According to Ahmed, this is problematic insofar as one of the key principles behind  freedom of speech is the protection of minorities.

He added: “14 per cent is too high a number of students missing out on a fundamental prerequisite of higher education.”

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The second concern of his speech was academic freedom.

Ahmed highlighted his aim to ensure an environment in which it is possible for staff to teach and discuss ideas, however controversial or offensive, without risking their jobs.

According to the ‘Academic Freedom Index 2023, the academic freedom at universities in the UK has decreased significantly over the past ten years.

The UK currently ranks 61, well behind most European countries.  

The problem Ahmed sees in the silencing of lawful, albeit controversial speech, is that more academics tend to self-censor, meaning that debates taking place at university tend to stagnate. 

Explaining that progress cannot come about by people repeating the same views over and over again, he stated: 

“Any disagreement over political or social questions that actually matters to people is likely to cause some of them to feel offended. Shutting down debate on that basis is not going to improve things for anyone.” 

Arif Ahmed’s role was newly created as part of the government’s Higher Education Freedom of Speech Act, which became law on 11 May 2023.

The Act is also introducing a new complaints scheme, enabling students, staff, and visiting speakers to take their case to court if they feel that they have suffered a loss because of unlawful restrictions on their speech.  

Additionally, universities will no longer be allowed to use non-disclosure agreements to silence complaints of sexual misconduct, abuse, harassment or bullying. 

These measures are expected to come into force before the 2024-25 academic year.

Lectern Lecture Theatre City Campus East Northumbria University” by jisc_infonet is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.