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.
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.