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A thought leadership series: Academic Freedom, Freedom of Speech and Equality Diversity and Inclusion

19 Oct 2023 | David Bass David Bass, Advance HE’s Director of EDI introduces our three-part series, opening with an insight piece from Dr Robert Simpson, Associate Professor at UCL, in which he argues that EDI and AF and FoS are fundamentally aligned and complementary.

While this thought leadership is grounded in the UK context, it draws on and may be of interest to colleagues in a wide range of global contexts who are navigating similar challenges.

Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI), academic freedom (AF) and freedom of speech (FoS) are essential to the success, impact and reputation of higher education. Recently however, these shared sector values have been at the heart of ongoing tension and disagreement within our institutions and across UK society.

Advance HE has been working with our UK members and with Universities UK (UUK) and GuildHE over the past few years to support a more proactive approach to AF and FoS, and their alignment and interaction with EDI. UUK has recently produced a briefing based on the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023 in England, and Advance HE will shortly be publishing guidance for the UK sector on setting institutional policies on EDI in relation to AF and FoS, on protected beliefs, and on fostering good relations.

Through our engagement with UK members and the consultation on embedding AF and FoS in our equality charters, we also heard a range of considered, expert views from different academics, staff and stakeholders. That expertise and depth of thinking is one of the strengths of our sector, and we wanted to create a space to bring more rigour and detail into a very sensitive and important topic. We hope that by curating this thought leadership series and inviting expert views, we can have a more complete conversation as a sector.

This work feels necessary at a time when free speech is increasingly salient and impacts on the experience, contribution and public perceptions of our staff, students and institutions.

A common strand of this thought leadership series is that on a basic, fundamental level, equality, diversity and inclusion, and academic freedom and freedom of speech are aligned. They are core shared values of our sector, both essential to its purpose and functioning. Free speech and EDI are complementary, and often even mutually supportive and reinforcing. As Arif Ahmed, the new Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom at the Office for Students expressed in a speech at Kings College London in early October:

“the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) is not just compatible with freedom of speech; in some cases it may actually require freedom of speech.”

Institutions are able to hold positions and values on EDI and other human rights and moral positions, without that specifically imperilling free speech. This alignment between EDI and AF and FoS doesn’t mean these values themselves occasionally aren’t in conflict. It is a very particular institutional challenge when core values clash. We can’t avoid difficult decisions in these contexts, and the damage and upset from both these clashes, and institutional decisions, is very real. Acknowledging that reality, whilst also being clear about everyone’s rights and how they are protected and upheld in the longer term, is a good first step, even as we have to take those immediate, proportionate decisions. We can also learn. If we do this well, discussions and debates themselves can inform our institutional positions and our approach to building inclusive environments and cultures.

The three articles in this series together set out a compelling vision for a purposefully inclusive sector where freedom of speech and academic freedom are explicitly and proactively championed. They explore different topics and perspectives, and are very different in approach, style, length, referencing, etc.

  • In our first article, Dr Robert Simpson, Associate Professor at UCL, sets out in detail how EDI, AF and FoS are fundamentally aligned and complementary. The Article usefully extends the point made in Prof Ahmed’s speech about the interrelation of AF and FoS and EDI, specifically to our role as higher education providers. Robert frames this alignment around a shared contribution to higher education providers’ core mission of ‘collective enquiry’ in research and teaching. He also explores why more radical views and approaches to free speech and EDI, both commonly heard across our sector, are not viable as a basis for institutional policy in a higher education context.

  • Prof Naomi Waltham-Smith, University of Oxford, authored the second article (now published), on why the UK HE sector should value and defend academic freedom of higher education. Naomi sets out the role of critique as a defining feature of academic work, and therefore of disagreeing well, building knowledge and supporting better democratic and societal discussion. Naomi’s highlighting of the importance of openness to challenge and debate feels particularly relevant as the sector seeks to navigate tension and support dialogue on a number of difficult and sensitive topics. Naomi also includes some feasible concrete actions to advance academic freedom.

  • The third and final article (forthcoming, scheduled in early November) has been written by Prof David Ruebain, PVC Culture, Equity and Inclusion at the University of Sussex. David is uniquely placed, as a lawyer in equality and human rights, previous Director of Legal Policy at the Equality & Human Rights Commission and previous Chief Executive of Equality Challenge Unit, and given his current role, to contribute to questions about how institutions should consider policy and positions in relation to EDI, the Equality Act 2010, PSED and AF/FoS. He explores some of the complexities, difficulties and potential solutions at the boundaries of free speech and EDI but sets out why leaders across the sector should have confidence in their equality and inclusion values and initiatives.

These articles represent the views of their authors, building on their expertise and experience in the sector, and offer a cogent and timely contribution to a sector priority. Collectively, they challenge our thinking on what different stakeholders may assume are unassailable positions on free speech, academic freedom, or EDI. They point to a way for the sector to proactively defend academic freedom, be clear on the importance and role of free speech in higher education, and continue to deliver on the important work of building more inclusive and equitable institutions.

Read Dr Robert Simpson's article here

(27 November update: All the other content in this series is now available here.)

In the next month, Advance HE will be sharing guidance for institutions to provide technical support to members to meet the aspiration and ideas articulated in this series:

  • Setting institutional policies and positions in relation to EDI and FoS/AF,

  • Understanding protected beliefs,

  • Promoting good relations.  

Advance HE is also hosting an event for those with institutional responsibility for EDI, on ensuring that their EDI activity – and their Equality Charters work in particular – positively aligns with and supports freedom of speech and academic freedom. Members can book your place here.

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Conference 6-7 March 2024

The EDI Conference 2024: The future is now: Building EDI practice for the changing world of HE will provide space to rethink and refresh our approaches to equality, diversity and inclusion, share our successes, and contribute to a collective discussion about how we are shaping the future of EDI in higher education across the globe by thinking about what we are doing and need to embed in our practice now. Find out more.

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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