University bosses must uphold freedom of speech on campuses, a watchdog has warned. Susan Lapworth, chief executive of the Office for Students (O
University bosses must uphold freedom of speech on campuses, a watchdog has warned.
Susan Lapworth, chief executive of the Office for Students (OfS), said academic freedom has become a major issue in universities.
Her warning comes amid calls for a crackdown on ‘campus wokery’, which has seen speakers banned and academics bullied out of jobs for voicing opinions.
Launching its Insight brief on freedom of speech, the OfS said it would intervene and fine universities up to £500,000 where lawful views are being stifled.
Former Sussex University academic Professor Kathleen Stock (pictured), 50, said she is ‘never going to teach in academia again’ due to a lack of free speech in the UK
Ms Lapworth said: ‘It does surprise me that we continue to hear people say that this isn’t a significant issue. We think it is and we think the evidence supports that. Protecting freedom of speech at our universities and colleges is essential and it is important that universities act with renewed urgency to protect it. In recent years there has been growing evidence that some academics are self-censoring and that a growing proportion of students are concerned about freedom of speech.
‘That hurts us all because university should be a place where difficult topics are discussed and debated freely.’
The rise of ‘campus wokery’ has seen several high-profile speakers shunned, including former home secretary Amber Rudd, whose invitation was withdrawn by an Oxford University group over links with the Windrush scandal.
The OfS is still probing Sussex University after Professor Kathleen Stock resigned amid a high-profile transgender row.
She quit after receiving death threats, bringing an end to the two-month saga that saw her branded a ‘transphobe’ by students who called for her to be fired. It is hoped that the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will end ‘no platforming’ of speakers and academics on campuses. The legislation would give the OfS extra powers, including a dedicated freedom of speech and academic freedom director.
During a protest at Sussex University she was confronted with protestors calling for her to be sacked. One poster said: ‘Fire Kathleen Stock’ another said ‘Kathleen Stock is a transphobe’
Amber Rudd (pictured with student organiser Felicity Graham) was due to speak to young women about engaging in politics at Oxford University
Experts welcomed the OfS report. Professor Alan Smithers, of Buckingham University, said: ‘Unfortunately, it is now thought OK that when views are expressed which the students, and sometimes the staff, do not want to hear to suppress them by shouting down or even excluding the speaker from the campus.
‘Too often university leaders have just gone along with this for a quiet life. I welcome the OfS taking academic freedom seriously, but it must go further and investigate the breaches.’
Toby Young, of the Free Speech Union, said it had taken up hundreds of cases where a student or academic was placed under investigation for saying something ‘offensive’.
He stressed: ‘If this guidance means universities take those vexatious complaints less seriously, it will be hugely beneficial.’