In theory one of the significant differences between the old duty on free speech in the Education (No. 2) Act 1986, and the new one contained in the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act, concerns “promotion”.
Until now universities in England merely had to take steps to ensure that freedom of speech within the law was “secured” for members. That’s still there in the new legislation – only now there’s also a new separate duty to “promote the importance of” both freedom of speech within the law, and academic freedom for academic staff, in higher education.
We don’t yet know for sure how the Office for Students (OfS) generally or the new Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom specifically will interpret that duty when setting out guidance on what OfS is “likely” to regard as compliance – although I am willing to place some sizeable bets.
In this interview with Cambridge student newspaper Varsity, Arif Ahmed, the candidate that we are told by the Telegraph is shortly to be announced as the campus tsar of freedom argues that:
Just as you get training about consent, sexual health, and fire safety, there should also be some sort of introduction about free speech”.
We might then reasonably regard this piece on a couple of talks staged at Cambridge by the Battle of Ideas (widely regarded as one of the many RCP/Spiked! front groups) as the sort of thing that the regulatory framework will be looking for:
The first class will feature talks about 17th century thinkers John Locke and John Milton, followed by a discussion about toleration and the “rise of a new puritanism” where “being offended can be deemed an offence”. And the second will include speakers on totalitarianism and universalism, then a debate about freedom in society today.
I’m willing to bet that the approach will require universities’ efforts to be “credible and effective”, enable students to ask questions, and be allocated sufficient time in a student’s timetable. I’m also willing to bet that the app described here (which I’ve seen a demo of) will fall significantly short of the approach expected by someone who is used to the tutorial system at Cambridge.
Of course, as our polling shows, if you are really trying to solve the free speech crisis on campus insofar as it exists and manifests in the way that OfS’ new NSS question frames it, universities will also have to stage some training on confidence and speaking in public – given that it‘s that rather than some moral or intellectual objection to free speech that seems to be “silencing students”.
Either that or the class sizes that I am regularly told are being experienced by (for example) international PGTs on business courses need to come down to a level where we can imagine a student being brave enough to put their hand up. But I digress.
Two ends of a see-saw
What I find especially interesting about Ahmed’s framing is that he is right to (begin) to list some of the growing expectations on universities these days to teach and/or train students in things that we either didn’t think important in the past, or took for granted that students would develop naturally.
You’ll recall for example, that OfS is proposing that all students receive teaching/training on harassment and sexual misconduct to ensure that students understand the university’s definitions and approach. This training will need to be annual, credible, effective and mandatory; it will need to include training for potential witnesses to raise awareness of and prevent; and OfS is proposing that there to be an appropriate amount of time dedicated to mandatory training as well as an opportunity for attendees to ask questions:
No doubt the various online providers in this space are already working up some tweaks to enable a scraped pass on some of those requirements. But think about this for a minute.
Proposal D in the OfS harassment and sexual misconduct consultation sets out in some complexity how it thinks the legal frameworks around protecting students from harm will interact with those that are coming on free speech and academic freedom. Students are going to need to understand that interaction too.
You can’t stick on an online module on harassment and good campus relations without referring to free speech, and you can’t really commission a tick box module on free speech without referring to harassment. Ideally you’d integrate the two – but given that is likely to generate significant discussion on where the “line” is between freedom from and freedom to, that’s going to need some proper (and likely in-person, given the sensitivities) facilitation. This further complicates matters.
I’d argue that getting externals in to do that properly would be too expensive. I can’t see that it’s fair or viable to give that job to existing academics. I think you can make a decent case that students should deliver it on a peer-delivery model – but you’d have to pay and train them, and bat off objections from culture warriors on the basis of a suspicion that the balancing act between the two duties won’t be fostered appropriately by “woke” student facilitators.
And the rest
These are not, of course, the only two things that there are calls to develop interventions over.
In England’s regulatory framework, OfS requires that students are given “support” for essay planning and accurate referencing, and advice about the consequences of academic misconduct. That latter one is particularly important to explore in detail when nobody can give a student a straight answer about what counts as cheating in an age of AI.
There’s also a requirement to provide support to help students make best use of digital learning, and careers support that includes the information, advice and guidance students need to identify their capabilities and the way in which these may be suited to particular careers – and to articulate these in a way likely to result in successful job applications.
And OfS is not the only organisation suggesting that these sorts of things are done.
I understand that DfE Prevent officials have been “exploring” the way in which students are introduced to the risk of being drawn into extremism and counter-terrorirsm beyond some optional training for the staff doing room bookings.
In the tragic Ed Farmer initiation case, the coroner called on universities to provide an induction for all first year students covering the risks of consuming alcohol in large quantities, guidance on caring for those who are drunk, and explanation of the correlation between initiation events and a heightened risk of serious harm, injury or death.
If they’re to be assessed on presentation or over group projects, students want training on presentation skills and working in teams. There are also regular calls for training and education on climate change, on gambling and drugs harms, on mental health, on handling money, on wider EDI issues, and on entrepreneurship.
And then there’s the academic skills and “hidden curriculum” training that is required when a university recruits a significant number of international students whose academic traditions have been different, and when a university recruits a significant number of students from disadvantaged or “first in family” backgrounds who just haven’t been “schooled” in the way everything works.
Add it all up, and it’s a significantly more compulsory and certainly more weighty version of the (non-mandatory in England) personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) curriculum. And ask anyone in a school that does that well, and they’ll tell you that a disjointed, opt-in and online approach to PSHE would fail.
On one level, there are those that will object to lots of this on the principled basis that OfS is leading some of it. But while the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 might place a duty on OfS have regard to the need to protect the institutional autonomy of English higher education providers, and said autonomy might include being free to determine the content of particular courses and the manner in which they are taught, supervised and assessed, it’s only a “have regard to” duty – balanced with other concerns.
There are some that will – tentatively in the case of the harassment and sexual misconduct agenda – wonder about the evidence, although on many of these issues that the sector has been used to claiming that participation in HE inculcates values, behaviours and skills that it has then struggled to prove in the “learning gain” section of TEF submissions, perhaps tells its own story.
Some will point out the inconsistencies to come – arguing that it’s a real problem if training that includes material on microaggressions or unconscious bias in the pursuit of preventing harassment is somehow declared as anti-free speech.
But you know how this goes – something must be done. And I do think it does. As well as the extensive evidence provided for the big agendas like freedom of speech or harassment, back in January and February we used a pilot run of our new student research platform Belong to identify whether students really were “becoming” in the ways we might imagine:
|To what extent do you feel confident about
|Very confident + Confident
|Unconfident + Very unconfident
|Navigating the campus
|How to avoid academic misconduct
|Using the library and learning resources
|Accessing and using the IT equipment and software I need to succeed
|The foundational skills and knowledge needed to do well on the course
|Working with other students in groups
|Making the most of lectures
|What I have to do to get a good grade on my course
|Approaching and discussing my progress with academic staff
|Spending my time during independent study productively
|Knowing what to do when others' behaviour is unacceptable
|Knowing what to do when an aspect of the delivery of my course is unacceptable
|Understanding how my final mark is calculated
|What is needed to get a graduate job
We need to be careful with these results – we’re measuring confidence (which doubtless is impacted by differential levels of confidence in general across student characteristics) and not measuring “attainment” in any of the “becoming” categories we have identified.
But it ought to concern us, I think, that just two third of students know what they have to do to get a good grade on their course, that under half know what to do to get a graduate job and that only 64 per cent are confident around handling situations where others’ behaviours are unacceptable.
As ever, the qualitative on these “becoming” questions is rich and instructive, a representative sample of which is as follows:
- All the inform,ation in one place
- Support for state school students who lack the foundational knowledge lecturers presume you’ll have
- There is not any time for any of these things, I don’t have time
- I feel I am a person that needs a lot of reassurance, and this is hard when there is so many people within each school, so no one gets known on a personal level.
- Before the semester begins, more time to introduce how to adapt to university.
- Making people feel like they belong.
- Make small student groups where we can support each other, among peers
And so setting aside my usual conclusions on belonging, what I find most important here are my worries about both bravery and capacity.
Step up to balance
Day to day, fixing these things needs both staff and students to lead, to take some risks and put themselves potentially in the firing line. But who are the academic staff willing to chair controversial debates, and who are the students willing to risk their reputations on social media by trying out a controversial opinion?
I’m not someone that thinks those aren’t issues – I’m just someone that thinks that judgement and accountability is different these social media days. And I certainly think that sort of bravery was easier for staff and students that were once less diverse and had bags of social capital, confidence and frankly arrogance that many now clearly lack if I look at anxiety stats.
But even if I thought that the bravery was there, the capacity almost certainly isn’t. Staff goodwill feels like it’s at an all-time low, and SUs everywhere are telling me about an engagement collapse (particularly in leadership positions) driven by economic precarity and part-time work.
It might be possible – and this is a long shot – to carve space and engagement demand for these sorts of things if they were associated with academic credit and had an assessment element to them too. Cynicism about workload models aside (and that goes both for staff and for students in ECTS terms) not recognising that these things take real work and real time to get right would be a mistake.
Maybe that would mean less “academic” delivery, and maybe the PSRBs need to sign off on some of the aspects (although I’m sure they would). We’d also do well to learn from the handful of universities who have already taken this kind of credit-bearing approach to skills development, careers work and/or mental health already – evaluating those programmes robustly and independently to determine what works (not least because I worry that meaningful moderative and assurative infrastructure like external examiners and subject benchmark statements are missing from these approaches).
But whatever it means, none of this is going away. Accepting that these agendas are happening and needed, integrating them in ways that make sense for students, creating demand to engage in them enthusiastically (ore at least universally) and then delivering them in a way that carves capacity from dangerously busy weeks for those involved in them is really the only sensible way to address them. The sooner that universities come to terms with that the better.