Brief, but not a lot of insight at OfS’ free speech shindig

The Office for Students’ insight event on Free Speech was, all things considered, a bit weird.

Department for Education (DfE) minister Claire Coutinho ran Michelle Donelan’s April 2022 speech through Chat-GPT and teased a pong to match the Lords’ ping over the statutory tort in the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill:

We remain resolute that people will have the right to go to court if their complaint cannot be resolved through other routes.”

John Tomasi from the Heterodox Academy appeared in the middle of his night to attempt to import a stump speech metaphor about his car. He looked baffled to be there – we knew the feeling.

Akua Reindorf, Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) commissioner had practised getting her “where do you draw the line” slides into ten minutes, but ran over and was cut off. We may never know where that line is now.

Former president of the University of York Students’ Union Patrick O’Donnell was worried about the “really hardcore banging on” about the statutory tort, Universities UK President Steve West was keen for universities to be left alone, and OfS CEO Susan Lapworth said that that universities should take a “fresh look” at their legal obligations given the need to ensure that free speech codes cover teaching and learning as well as external speakers. The discussion at Senate/Academic Board should be a doozy.

Earlier in the day we were issued with an “insight brief” to accompany the report, which amounted to a chopped down version of the EHRC guidance and summary of the dodgy dossier of research that has underpinned the free speech Bill since its inception.

In one miserable section of the brief, we got a case study involving a student society inviting a speaker to an event that had taken a strong anti-immigration stance, accused on social media of holding extreme rightwing views and promoting racial hatred.

It then rehearsed the issues and duties that the university will need to consider when deciding whether the event can go ahead without even mentioning the role or responsibilities of the students’ unions that OfS is about to start regulating – continuing the proud tradition of the debate on Free Speech really being about two universities and a bit of Durham rather the sector at large.

(Neither Oxford nor Cambridge’s central SUs have responsibility for societies – the university does it instead. And new duties that surround the funding of, support for and approval of new student societies don’t apply to universities – which means both Oxbridge college SUs and Oxbridge societies will be conveniently exempt from a Bill whose debate has obsessed over them).

What we didn’t get, in the brief or during the event, was any actual insight. A real Office for “Students” would be busying itself trying to understand the nature and causes of the “problem” it reckons it is highlighting. Another regulator might assemble a group of experts and go through all their case work – the 300 word explanations of “cancelled” events supplied into Prevent monitoring, the handful of notifications, and the lessons from their ongoing (14 month) investigation of one case at Sussex.

Why is there this problem on campus? We may never know. That there is no coherent theory of change underpinning its work in this area exposes the regulator either as intellectually bankrupt, or worse politically corrupted.

Instead we got all the usual stuff. Throughout the day our old friend the “chilling effect” – very much the WMD of the debate used to justify new powers – was in regular use, as was the confection that the agenda is all about the espousal of “unpopular ideas”. But as my mind drifted dangerously away from the killer content being offered up on Zoom, that did get me thinking.

Most people accept that free speech regulations/laws are there to protect the ability to say things that are unpopular. But most of us don’t like being unpopular – so yes, many of us self-censor our unpopular views.

But if you then measure the success of your free speech codes by assessing the extent of self-censorship, the vanishing point of that argument involves trying to make all opinions as popular as each other.

Some would argue that it’s all about being “brave” and giving people the confidence to be brave. But while I’m a pretty brave and comfortable person, I’m still not a massive fan of being hated – I don’t understand why it would be a university’s job to make me go up in the helicopter and jump out, even if there is a parachute on offer.

Or more pointedly, I don’t see how a university might get away with marking me down or failing me for refusing to go up in the helicopter and jump out as a method of learning. I don’t care how many parachutes you have. I just don’t want to.

And anyway, the real vanishing point of the “unpopular opinions” thing is that we accept there are such things as unpopular opinions. Given humans don’t relish being unpopular, in the end the only way you make it easier to espouse unpopular views involves trying to make all opinions as popular as each other.

But as long as students and staff aren’t specifically harmed by their freedom of expression, to what extent is it a university (or a students’ union’s) job to police the relative popularity of different opinions? Seminars aren’t BBC News reports.

I’ve heard calls for “brave spaces” before now – so I might also add that to the extent to which saying unpopular or “edgy” requires bravery, to have bravery you need real security. And all I can see is multiple aspects of student precarity, not security.

I’m sure the Bullingdon boys of the 1980s felt secure enough to indulge in contrarian debate in the evening and banter verging on harassment in the bar afterwards. But if you’re hungry, have very few friends, work two jobs, and are struggling with deadlines, in what world would you be thinking “I’ll roll the dice on becoming really unpopular by saying this thing that people might call out as transphobic on social media” as opposed to “I just need to get though today and pass.”

So of course free speech protections should be measured on backstop principles (were people actually imprisoned, did people get to speak even if shouted at etc) – but arguably free speech strategies should focus on students feeling more secure in their lives. If our glorious regulator has a better theory of change, I’d love to hear it.

One response to “Brief, but not a lot of insight at OfS’ free speech shindig

  1. It’s well outside my expertise but the interaction between the HE Free Speech Bill categories and the Prevent Guidance seems to generate some anomalies. Universities are clearly covered by both. Constituent colleges are covered by Prevent will be partly expect from HEFSA (if that’s what it becomes). FE sector colleges will be covered by both but OfS will monitor free speech whereas Ofsted’s the lead body on Prevent. Providers on the OfS register who aren’t universities and aren’t FE sector colleges will be covered by HEFSA and may be covered by Prevent but seems to depend on whether they receive HEFCE funding (according to the 2021 version of the regulations) and the number of students.

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