Maintaining impartiality on free speech could be the Office for Students’ biggest regulatory challenge yet

Arif Ahmed, OfS director for freedom of speech and academic freedom says he has no interest in culture wars. Debbie McVitty wonders whether the regulator can realistically be neutral

Office for Students director for freedom of speech and academic freedom Arif Ahmed is passionate about the importance of his role. At stake, he believes, is the very future of democracy itself.

In his first public statement since starting the role, Ahmed will today give a speech at King’s College London where he will say:

For many students, university might be the only time in their lives when they have both the time and the relative freedom to embark on this exploration [of religious and political views]. A generation deprived of that freedom may never truly appreciate what it has lost.

Speaking in advance of the speech, he is keen to emphasise that regulating freedom of speech in higher education isn’t anything to do with politics, culture wars or political wedge issues, but is “fundamentally a quality issue.” If students are not exposed to varied points of view or challenged on their cherished opinions, they haven’t, in Ahmed’s view, had a very good student experience, even if the form that challenge takes is “offensive or shocking.”

Ahmed’s priority is less about the high profile cases of “no platforming” of external speakers (often those with a much greater platform to voice their woes than the student society that fluffed the speaker invitation). He is more concerned about “low key” instances of silencing – small failures to expose students to alternate points of view or create spaces in which these can be articulated. Citing the latest National Student Survey data that one in seven (or 14 per cent) of students disagree that they feel free to express their ideas, opinions, or beliefs, he acknowledges that the depth, scale, and nature of the issue is relatively unknown, and expects the new complaints system which will be in force from 1 August 2024 to offer additional insight.

Pariah versus buffer

The purity of the principles are unarguable, but the practicalities remain to be seen. Just last week the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation, and Technology Michelle Donelan attacked what she called “the slow creep of wokeism” in science – referring specifically to debates around sex and gender.

While Ahmed might naturally be expected to adjudicate over claims from any interlocutor on the topic without starting from a position of favouring one perspective over another, Donelan’s characterising of the discussion about the extent of the mutability of sex and gender as a “denial of biology” raises the possibility that he could find himself in the uncomfortable position of being expected to adjudicate over the nature of scientific truth itself. When does something stop becoming a point of view, open to debate in research seminars and scientific papers, and take on the status of fact?

For Ahmed, there is no such thing as unassailable scientific truth. His view is that the current scientific consensus must always be open to challenge, whatever it is, in line with the Royal Society’s founding motto Nullius in verba (“take nobody’s word for it”). He also observes that the credibility of his regulatory work will hinge on his not being associated with any particular political position or ideology. If he manages to pull off the necessary distance from government – and this is something it’s widely perceived that OfS has struggled to achieve – he will either make himself universally unpopular, or emerge as a trusted and impartial voice that could potentially act as a useful buffer between the sector and its political detractors.

Opportunity knocks

As the regulator begins the discussion with universities, colleges, and students’ unions about how legislation on freedom of speech should be enacted in practice, there is arguably an opportunity to try to really understand the factors that might make a student (or indeed, anyone associated with a university) not feel free to express themselves.

Ahmed is clearly averse to making presumptions about whether this is more likely to be about universities functioning as “left-wing madrassas” (in Toby Young’s words), or that structural inequality and cultural factors could leave some feeling more able to speak out than others. But this will also mean being open to the possibility that those who are less likely to feel secure to speak are also less likely to engage with a national complaints scheme – and not assuming therefore that complaints data give the whole picture.

In this respect, work with students’ unions to design the complaints scheme will be critical – Ahmed says that he is keen to hear from students’ unions about how the national scheme should work as part of the wider consultation planned for this calendar year, but it’s also clear that “figure out how to work with students’ unions” is one of the items on his very long to do list.

There are some distinctions to clarify around how students’ unions might be expected to enact their duties under the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act in a different way from higher education providers given the differences not only in size and resource, but in core purpose. Students’ unions naturally have an advocacy role and take political positions on things. This shouldn’t in principle stop students who disagree from challenging those positions (in fact, that’s exactly what student representation systems are meant to do) but thinking through how students’ union democracy interacts with safeguarding free speech in practice will be new territory for the regulator and one laden with political booby traps as those suspicious of students’ unions as organisations seek to frame their own political preferences as the “neutral” position.

There’s also an opportunity, tied to the new duty for universities to “promote” free speech as well as “secure” it, to begin to articulate some good practice and establish some kind of benchmark for what universities might be expected to do. This could help HE providers both to remain legally compliant and to actually strengthen freedom of speech in a way that addresses the widely held desire that universities’ discursive culture might promote “disagreeing well.”

Elsewhere on Wonkhe King’s College London president Shiij Kapur has written about the serious and scholarly way in which universities are responding to free speech legislation. While every university must determine how to manifest the duty for itself, having some support and guidance on turning principles into practice could save everyone a lot of anxiety. Whether or not you agree that there is a serious problem around free speech on campuses, the work is going to have to happen. It might as well be constructive rather than punitive.

3 responses to “Maintaining impartiality on free speech could be the Office for Students’ biggest regulatory challenge yet

  1. “For Ahmed, there is no such thing as unassailable scientific truth. His view is that the current scientific consensus must always be open to challenge, whatever it is, in line with the Royal Society’s founding motto Nullius in verba (“take nobody’s word for it”).”

    But there comes a point where there are unassailable scientific truths. Nobody, surely, must take flat eathers seriously? Must students have the opportunity to hear miasma theory, or is germ theory good enough? Is every campus expected to be like speakers’ corner and allow individuals on a soapbox to say whatever? And, of course, at the same time as this we are told to be increasingly vigilant on issues around Prevent (with government ministers saying that we should be focussing more on Muslim extremism and not right wing extremism, even if the increase in extremism is evidently coming from one place).

    This doesn’t sound like a desire for free speech. This sounds like a framework to try and assure that people with small or large C conservative views have a safety mechanism to fall back on if they espouse views that, simply, are unpopular. It is an attempt to take away one of the most important impacts of any freedom – the freedom to experience the consequences of your actions…

    1. “But there comes a point where there are unassailable scientific truths.”

      A great number of the current “free speech” debates have one side claiming that the truth held by some influential group 30/75/200 years ago is unassailable, and recent (or not) scholarship suggesting alternative theories is the problem, which for political reasons is leading to the “real” truth being suppressed.

      I wouldn’t expect philosophers of science to defend the idea of unassailable truths anyway, though – scientific methods can show theories to be false, but never to be true, and even a known-false theory can be useful as a model in the right circumstances: we’ve known Newtonian mechanics to be flawed for over a century – before which it was the unassailed truth for multiple centuries – but still teach it in schools and use it in many real-world applications, if you’re making a map of your local area a “flat earth” model is way more convenient than correcting for the Earth’s curvature and gives almost as good results, even a miasma theory of sorts made a high-profile comeback in terms of assessing the success of ventilation (we can’t rapidly measure germ content of air, but CO2 as a proxy “bad air” measure works very well). The beauty of science is in the complexity.

      The OfS is a disaster in this and other matters, but claiming that there are unassailable scientific truths is the wrong defence – the government office for declaring truths unassailable is unlikely to be our friend, after all.

  2. Matt, I think you’re misconstruing the point.

    The point isn’t about whether universities should teach all perspectives on a particular issue because there may be 0.1% of the population who believe something that is clearly false. The point is that the 0.1% should be allowed to express those views (unless they are illegal) should they wish to.

    The other 99.9% should then use reason and logic to show why they are wrong, allowing the 0.1% to see the error of their ways or “the consequences of their actions” as you put it. They don’t experience the consequences of their actions if their actions are prevented from happening.

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