Freedom of speech, academic freedom and good relations continue to be high on the HE agenda as institutions make sense of the complex relations and perceived tensions between the three. In the UK HEIs also prepare for new legislation: (the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill introduces new responsibilities for English universities and is likely to impact indirectly on other UK institutions.
A partnership project between Advance HE, UUK and Guild HE in 21/22 established high levels of interest across the HE institutions in strengthening resilience around freedom of speech, academic freedom and good relations.
The roundtable discussions led to a statement of commitment from the sector promoting and protecting academic freedom and free speech, co-signed by Advance HE, Universities UK, Committee of University Chairs (CUC), GuildHE and NUS Charity Higher education sector statement on promoting academic freedom and free speech.
We will continue to support our members to strengthen this commitment through work to explore how to promote Freedom of Speech and EDI together. Further work will include updating our ‘Promoting Good Relations on Campus’ guidance, developing training to support institutions in their work on good relations, freedom of speech and academic freedom, and convening a conversation to explore global issues and share innovative practice relating to freedom of speech.
Promoting Freedom of Speech and Good Campus Relations Sector Roundtables
The project brought together senior leaders from a number of UK institutions for 5 roundtable conversations focusing on different perspectives:
- Academic freedom
- Employment and employment law
- Advancing of EDI and good relations – protection from harm and protection of freedom of speech
- Relationship with student unions
- Leadership, governance and regulation
The roundtables enabled frank conversations, with a number of leaders acknowledging areas of vulnerability in relation to their institution’s preparedness to deal with issues relating to freedom of speech and good relations. Several common themes emerged throughout the different discussions:
- A welcoming of the shift from protecting free speech and academic freedom to a more active and visible promotion within the sector.
- A recognition of the need to create a culture where free speech and academic freedom co-exist with work to promote good campus relations and EDI initiatives, including zero tolerance towards bullying or harassment. Such agendas are inter-related but often perceived to sit in tension with one another.
- A recognition of the responsibility of institutions to equip and support students to encounter course content, discussions, or views that they may find challenging, offensive or unacceptable, and of the role and responsibility of institutional leaders to promote open dialogue across campuses, particularly when discussing controversial issues.
- Ongoing questions over legal landscape regarding free speech and academic freedom. The existing landscape is complex and, as such, there is often confusion when deciding how universities should navigate seemingly overlapping and / or competing duties.
- Varying levels of preparedness and confidence to deal with issues of freedom of speech across the sector. Some examples of action to introduce, develop, or strengthen initiatives which outline the importance of academic freedom and free speech to students and staff, but not in every institution.
- The need for further guidance to support institutions – and students’ unions – to manage issues relating to freedom of speech, academic freedom and good relations.
Key challenges, topics, recommendations and emerging practice from the roundtables have been collated into a short briefing paper.
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