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Advance HE’s approach to freedom of speech and academic freedom

09 Jun 2023 | Advance HE Advance HE is unequivocal in its support for academic freedom and freedom of speech

Free speech and academic freedom are core values of the higher education sector. Free speech does not exist in a vacuum; freedom of speech on campus has to work in tandem with other laws and rights. Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) have a responsibility to balance their free speech duty with their responsibilities to safeguard the dignity and respect of students and staff (as laid down in the Equality Act 2010 and other related legislation).

Advance HE’s role is to support and contextualise good practice and innovation in equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI), enabling members to improve long-term outcomes while navigating the risks and opportunities inherent to sensitive and contested topics. Our frameworks and recommendations are flexible and adaptable rather than directive. This approach to equality ensures that diversity, and different individuals, ideas and perspectives are valued, and therefore complements our sector’s fundamental commitment to the autonomy of institutions and academic freedom and individuals.

Our commitment to freedom of speech and academic freedom, along with some recent and current examples of our work, are set out here:

  • Advance HE is unequivocal in its support for academic freedom and freedom of speech. Academic freedom is an important part of higher education; it applies to things a person agrees with, as well as things they don’t agree with, and Advance HE is working with the sector to encourage constructive dialogue

  • In November 2022, we were instrumental in the development of the sector statement about freedom of speech and academic freedom, co-signed with Universities UK, GuildHE and other bodies

  • The statement followed five sector roundtables convened by Advance HE, Universities UK and GuildHE, which explored academic freedom, employment, EDI, student unions and governance. The roundtable outcomes were summarised in a report, Freedom of speech, academic freedom and good campus relations – A summary of 2022 sector roundtables, which shares constructive ideas for institutions to consider as they promote freedom of speech and academic freedom, while concurrently creating the inclusive institution where all voices are heard without fear or favour

  • We help our members in their work to promote freedom of speech directly to students. For example, we collaborated with GoodCourse to create micro-courses to support student understanding about the vital importance and principles of freedom of speech and academic freedom on campus, and creating learning and working environments which concurrently protect and promote equality, diversity and inclusion

  • Advance HE is committed to supporting its members and the sector in their initiatives to create inclusive institutions where all talents can flourish. Our work supports members or sector bodies in their evidence-informed initiatives to tackle inequalities in their own context

  • The Athena Swan and Race Equality Charters, which we run on behalf of our members, complement freedom of speech as they help promote the voices of all, including those who may have previously lacked the opportunity to engage. We are currently working with our members in a consultation to explore how freedom of speech and academic freedom can be more explicitly embedded in the Athena Swan and Race Equality Charters (After note: Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom are now explicit in the Charters.)

  • We are currently running a project, ‘Good Campus Relations and Freedom of Speech’, helping our members to create inclusive institutions and improve campus relations between different groups, while supporting and protecting freedom of speech and academic freedom

  • Informed by this latest work, we will update our guidance on ‘Promoting good relations on campus: a guide for higher and further education’ to support institutions’ later this year. The publication will offer new ideas about working to create a climate in which all students and staff can discuss a range of topics – including the complex and controversial – in the knowledge that they will be listened to and treated with mutual dignity, tolerance, and civility. Everyone, including those from marginalised groups, should be able to speak up without fear of harassment or discrimination – which should never be tolerated or excused.

Advance HE is currently consulting on how we consider and provide guidance on freedom of speech and academic freedom in relation to Athena Swan and the Race Equality Charter.

You can contribute to the consultation and share your views through this survey.

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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