This article is more than 7 years old

Speaking freely: the best university ranking ever

A commentary on what must be the most outstanding university ranking to date. Genius.
This article is more than 7 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

A league table of genius

I enjoy a good laugh and it was a genuine joy to happen across the Spiked “Free Speech Rankings”. Naturally I assumed was a spoof, a bit like People and Planet but with less effort. But no, despite how silly this looks at first sight, it seems that this is a serious attempt at ranking universities according to a set of criteria associated with free speech.

Having scrutinised the table even more closely it seems my first impressions were very wide of the mark indeed. This is, in fact, the finest league table which higher education rankings wonks have ever had the privilege to pore over.

League tables are, of course, all dubious to a greater or lesser extent. All have major methodological flaws. I used to think that the Ecole de Mines ranking – which ordered institutions by number of Fortune 500 CEOs they had as alumni – was outstanding. I also thought that the Student sex league had few peers in terms of its methodological exactitude. That was until I saw this which frankly scales new heights in ranking brilliance.

Free speech

Let’s look at the detail of the methodology:

A university’s or students’ union’s individual ranking is calculated from the policies and actions which have been assessed.

The score is the equivalent of the university’s or students’ union’s most severe policy. For instance, a university that holds three Amber and one Red policy would receive an overall Red ranking. This is on the condition that a policy will only be given a Red or Amber ranking if the policy places a substantial restriction on free speech and expression. Policies that only affect a specific area of campus life, such as IT policies, will be given the weight of a Red or Amber Action.

Red or Amber actions are the equivalent of one third of the weight of a Red or Amber policy. For instance, if an otherwise Amber university has three Red actions to its name, this would raise its ranking to an overall Red. However, the actions are not interchangeable, so, if a Green university has two Red actions to its name it will remain Green, rather than Amber or Red.

Specific restrictions, embedded within otherwise Green policies, can also be counted as an action. This could include a ban on ‘offensive clothing’, embedded into a particular policy.

The overall ranking

The institution’s overall ranking is the average of the university’s and students’ union’s individual rankings. When one is Red and the other is Green, the overall ranking will be Amber. But, if one is Amber and the other is either Red or Green, the number and severity of the policies on either side will be used to make a judgement as to what rank the institution should receive.

All pretty clear and precise. Impossible to imagine anyone picking holes in this.

The product of this clinical assessment is an overall red, amber or green ranking. These are summarised, again with unerring precision, as follows:

Free for all


A students’ union, university or institution that is hostile to free speech and free expression. It mandates explicit restrictions on speech, including, but not limited to, bans on specific ideologies, political affiliations, beliefs, books, speakers or words.


A students’ union, university or institution that chills free speech and free expression by issuing guidance with regard to appropriate speech and conduct. Policies in this category often concern themselves with the tone, rather than the content, of speech and ideas. This includes, but is not limited to, restrictions on ‘offensive’, ‘controversial’ or ‘provocative’ speech and expression. Policies which vet speakers, literature or events may also fall within this category.


A students’ union, university or institution that, as far as we are aware, places no restrictions on free speech and expression – other than where such speech or expression is unlawful.

In order to get to these rankings the compilers have done some incredibly detailed and forensic investigations into two main areas. First, the policies adopted by universities in relation to free speech, harassment and equal opportunities (all of which are,of course, at least partly determined by legal requirements but we’ll set that aside for the moment) and by students’ unions in relation to speakers and student conduct etc. Secondly, the activities of students in banning speakers, newspapers etc and the expulsion of students by universities  on the “grounds of their controversial views or statements”.

All of this, both the mass of written policies and difficult to assess actions and anecdotes involving banning sombreros and the Sun newspaper and so forth, is assessed by the rankers to determine the overall award to the institution. It’s an unquestionably precise approach which really puts other league table compilers with their HESA data and REF results to shame.

Space does not permit a full listing of all of the extraordinarily clever aspects of this table. My only regret in highlighting the genius inherent in the ranking is that I have come rather late to the party.  Others from the Guardian to the Telegraph have reported, uncritically thank goodness, of the genius underlying this unique ranking.

Where does this all take us? To the top of the league I hope. It also happily demonstrates one of the areas of common ground between the libertarians on the extreme left and on the right. But that’s a topic for another ranking. Let’s hope for some more genius next year.

10 responses to “Speaking freely: the best university ranking ever

  1. Fabulous. May I suggest for 2016 a ranking of best conference accommodation pudding selection? This is a ranking sorely missing from the range at the moment.

    Happy to help with the qualitative criterion testing.

    I’d like to put Warwick’s Scarman House pudding trolley forward for consideration.

  2. Disappointing and ironic that they didn’t look further than students’ union policies. They could have looked at recorded issues with academic freedom for staff, and at the very large number of gagging clauses in recent years.

  3. Genuinely can’t tell if this is a satire piece or not. I think it’s a great thing, especially in the age of speech-restriction and moral-busy-bodies that we seem to live in now. I certainly would not send my children to a university that stifles free-speech. But then, we live in a strange age, where the Oxford English Dictionary can re-define the meaning of fascism…

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