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Navigating freedom of speech, academic freedom and good relations for the short and long term

15 Mar 2024 | Advance HE Ahead of our new Strategic Preparation Programme - free speech and academic freedom, we explore some of the challenges facing institutions as they prepare for the new HE Freedom of Speech Act

Higher education providers everywhere – not least in England – are grappling with competing and complex issues regarding freedom of speech, academic freedom and good relations.

They are navigating the difficult issues ‘on the ground’ – where tensions and emotions have the potential to be very high. They face multiple demands of protecting and promoting Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom; making judgement calls on when speech might become harassment; and promoting and maintaining inclusive campuses where staff and students feel confident and safe to give voice to their lawful views even where they might offend others.  

English legislation comes into effect at the same time that higher education providers are facing a number of very significant challenges that are all-consuming for their leadership teams. To name a few, these include financial sustainability, pressure on international recruitment, reassessing operating models, consolidation – in some cases, and grappling with the multiple known and unknown implications of Artificial Intelligence.  

As core principles of our higher education system, perhaps it should hardly need to be said that Freedom of speech and Academic Freedom must have full strategic attention too. However, at the recent Advance HE/Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) House of Commons Breakfast Seminar: Has the higher education sector got it right on freedom of speech? How can governors and managers best support difficult-and-lawful speech in practice? the debate suggested that there is still much to be done at both a strategic and operational level in our institutions. Echo chambers “that might always have existed in HE have become more pronounced, and more intolerant of diverging views.”  

Professor Van de Noort, Vice Chancellor of the University of Reading, suggested that some of the formal structures put in place in HE over the last decade have further limited views. Universities score higher in the TEF, REF and B3 conditions if they present themselves as having a high degree of conformity and consistency rather than showing a significant degree of diversity of thought and approach. Some REF panels are not generous to outputs outside their own paradigm. Director of SOAS, Professor Adam Habib, speaking at the same event, said, “We have a serious challenge of academic freedom in the UK and have been lying to ourselves for a long time that we don’t have a problem…people are scared to speak on substantive issues around identity, trans, race and some political issues.”  

So what’s to be done? How can institutions navigate this complex and contentious landscape for both the short and long term? We know from our discussions with the sector that institutions are in different places in their readiness and joined-up thinking on this agenda, so our work needs to reflect that. Over the next few months, Advance HE will be publishing new guidance on protected beliefs (often at the heart of conflicts on free speech) and lessons from recent court rulings, such as the Phoenix and Miller judgements. We’re also updating our guidance on fostering good relations and offering a Strategic Preparation Programme. 

The real challenge is for institutions to adopt both a strategic, institution-wide, approach to these issues, to prepare adequately for the new legislative landscape, and at the same time take on the accusation of complacency head-on. In doing so, it will be key to bring to bear a diverse range of voices and influence on campus in formulating their approach. Our recent EDI conference prompted comments that in some instances it was not always evident this was the case. 

Nobody is suggesting that work this easy, particularly where resources and ‘bandwidth’ are stretched by the multiple strategic challenges outlined above. To that end, Advance HE is proposing that a collaborative model could unlock shared problem-solving and route-mapping.  

In developing the Strategic Preparation Programme - free speech and academic freedom, the programme team has been focussing on what it takes to work in partnership across multiple functions to deliver effective institutional decision-making that combines risk management, assurance provision, inclusion, communications and crisis simulation. To that end, Advance HE is inviting groups of institutions to work together, facilitated by the programme team, helping to work through how the various and many entities in the institution come together to bring about a strategy to “get it right on freedom of speech”.  

David Bass, Advance HE Director of EDI, explained, “Our members are navigating tensions and claims around things like anti-Semitism, transphobia, infringements of free speech and academic freedom. 

“These are serious and weighty issues. Institutions are under significant pressure, and we're engaging with them, regulators, and sector stakeholders in how to steer through this difficult landscape. The discussions and interactions are governed by a complex set of laws, and at the forefront of minds at the moment is the freedom of speech legislation, particularly the new HE Freedom of Speech Act for our English members, but also the Equality Act, Public Sector Equality Duty and Prevent, and the regulation around some of this is very dynamic. 

“Coupled with our ongoing support and guidance, I believe that this new programme is an opportunity to adopt the strategic approaches that will help re-establish confidence in our approaches to Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom and in the work to ensure our campuses are safe and tolerate places for robust debate.” 

Find out more and register your interest now for the Strategic Preparation Programme: Free Speech and Academic Freedom

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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