Ten things SUs can do now on free speech and political diversity

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe


This is a briefing for Wonkhe SUs subscribers.

In February 2021 we published the report from a project supporting a group of students’ unions to identify ways in which SU arrangements to secure freedom of speech and political diversity on campus might be taken forward.

Some of the recommendations will take some time to work through and implement – some for example would involve detailed additional work to be led by NUS and Universities UK.

But with the announcement that the Westminster government intends to appoint a “freedom of speech champion” to the Office for Students board, in the meantime we’d identified here ten hopefully straightforward things that SUs could do right now to demonstrate their commitment to freedom of speech.

As a reminder, the report proposes:

  • That students’ unions adopt a Code on students’ unions’ political diversity and freedom of speech and report on its operation annually. The code would form an addendum to the Guide for Members of Higher Education Governing Bodies on the relationship between universities and students’ unions.
  • That a group should be formed, sponsored by NUS, Universities UK and other sector bodies, to host, develop and supervise sign up to the code, in a similar way to the operation of the Charity Governance Code.
  • The code should substantially adopt the widely used principles within the free speech policy statement produced by the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago.
  • That the code should set a goal of increasing the volume and diversity of debates and student political groups on campus, and should see all universities pledging to work with their SU to use networks and influence to set targets for expanding opportunities to meet and debate with important figures.

1. Support in principle?

It would be very helpful for us at Wonkhe to know if your officer team is intending to support the proposed Code in principle by the end of February. Just drop us an email here, where we’ll also be happy to answer any questions on the proposed Code or the related report.

2. Discuss/adapt/agree code at Trustee Board

You’ll probably have a meeting of your board coming up soon. The smart thing to do would be to propose the adoption of the proposed Code at that meeting. There’s a plain text version here that you can copy, paste and adapt. If you’d like us to present on the work at your board meeting, do let us know – or you can grab the slides we used at the webinar on the Code here.

It’s also worth discussing adoption of the Code with your university, and given it is proposed that it becomes an addendum to the Guide for Members of Higher Education Governing Bodies on the relationship between universities and students’ unions, agree the arrangements with your university’s governing body.

3. A single webpage

We’d recommend that you create a single webpage, accessible from the front page of your website, that hosts all the key material pertaining to the Code – the main set of principles, your version of the detail, and the various links to policies, procedures and contacts for students and the public to raise questions and concerns.

4. Clubs and societies

One of the major things we found was that clear information on the creation of a new society and the criteria used to fund them was often hard to come by. We would recommend that the SU publishes and makes clear to students the objective, rules based criteria for the approval and or re-recognition of new groups and sets out how a professional/technical decision of that sort should be made and/or challenged by students.

We’d also recommend that SUs to publish and make clear to students the objective funding and support criteria for student clubs and societies, reporting on decisions made against those criteria annually in the SU’s annual report. Both of these things should be linked to the from the web page suggested earlier.

5. Campaigns and policy clarity

There’s some material in the model Code that sets out how boards might approach and regulate this area of activity that gives rise to the maximum levels of campaigning and political diversity in doing so.

For now we’d recommend that the webpage referenced above makes clear to all students

how they might raise or challenge policy matters and questions democratically, or obtain funding or support for a student group that might undertake political or campaigning activity.

6. Advocacy clarity

There’s another easy win to be had on that webpage for those that accuse such services of being politicised – where the SU provides advice and individual advocacy of any sort, it should set out a service delivery promise to all students setting out the way in which the service is delivered, the standards to which it is delivered, and how that function is governed inside the SU.

7. VFM statement and process

In the medium term work is envisaged that will enable SU expenditure to be more meaningfully compared. For now we’d recommend that that webpage referenced above hosts a link to the SU’s most up to date annual accounts, and hosts a value statement that explains how the SU’s funding is determined, how expenditure is monitored and how value for money is secured.

8. Reviewing procedures

The allegation is that procedures are designed to trip up student clubs and groups. We’d recommend you commit now to an annual review of external events and speaker policies, fed into the university, to gather feedback from users to ensure that processes are kept as rapid in execution and as simple to understand as possible. You should also work to establish with unambiguous clarity across the institution and SU who can issue a formal invitation on behalf of a university, students’ union or student group, and how.

9. Complaints

It’s really important that students (and the public) can raise issues with your policies and procedures, or the way you are interpreting or carrying them out, so those issues can be dealt with properly and fairly.

In the long term, the recommendation is that SUs adopt, promote and publish a single complaints procedure/policy – taking into account members’ and leaders’ conduct, general dissatisfaction and election issues – where a student can have that complaint reviewed by the person appointed by the university governing body. You will also want to clarify who a student or member of the public should complain to where both the SU and the university are involved in a free speech or external speaker issue.

For now the wise thing is to publish and/or link to the procedures that are there now from the single webpage referenced above, making clear to students that an appeal (in England and Wales) can be heard by university, and ultimately reviewed by the Office of Independent Adjudicator (OIAHE).

10. Breadth and range

Finally, we found that on many campuses the real issue is the dearth of external speakers being booked. You’ll want to commence discussions with your university on working together to set a goal of increasing the volume and diversity of debates and student political groups on campus, using networks and influence to set targets for expanding opportunities to meet and debate with important figures.

Read more

Taking the debate forward – A new code to secure and champion freedom of speech and political diversity on campus

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