Shouldn’t OfS have some evidence when it says there’s a problem with free speech on campus?

Monday saw the second set of evidence sessions for the Freedom of Speech (Higher Education) Bill committee stage.

University of Kent politics professor Matt Goodwin (one of the people behind that survey we looked at a few weeks ago) said that the debate around freedom of speech has already led to changes in how some universities address the issue, and said he would invite the National Front or the BNP to campus. Meanwhile Birkbeck academic Eric Kaufman (one of the authors of the two big Policy Exchange reports that have inspired the Bill) spoke on the importance of conservative academics feeling able to express their ideas within higher education environments that tend to lean to the left.

One of the characteristics of the “scrutiny” of the Bill so far is the lack of focus on the actual Bill – so it was refreshing when Sunder Katwala (director of British Future) appeared with some reflections on “real world” application of some of the broad brush principles in the Bill, identifying some “reprehensible” yet “within the law” speech that he thought it would be reasonable for universities to ban – discriminatory speech that would not meet a legal threshold, conspiracy theories, and acts inimical to academic freedom like book burning.

Later Royal Holloway VC Paul Layzell appeared for Universities UK, Jonathan Grant spoke pers cap on some of his research for the Kings Policy Institute, and Danny Stone appeared for the Antisemitism Policy Trust – who made clear that in his view some Jewish students can have their free speech oppressed by a failure to control far right speakers or events on campus. It was one of the few times that the impact of unfettered freedom of speech on marginalised students’ freedom and confidence to speak has been addressed.

NUS’ Hillary Gyebi-Ababio was put under pressure over her assertion that NUS is committed to freedom of speech – John “Common sense group” Hayes tried a gotcha contrasting Gyebi-Ababio’s stated commitment to free speech within the law with its “No Platform” policy. It was odd given that back in the early part of the last decade, John was thrilled that NUS was “no platforming” Hizb-ut-Tahir over anti-semitism on the basis that the government wouldn’t ban them.

I should know. It was me he said it to.

But it was Office for Students CEO Nicola Dandridge that offered up perhaps the most frustrating evidence of the day. When asked about the potential overlap / conflict between the two complaints schemes that would exist (the existing OIA one, and the new OfS one) she merely suggested that could be solved by good communication.

The problem here is rights. As drafted, if there’s an incident on campus involving a member of staff saying something controversial and a group of students, said lecturer would have the right to complain about students trying to restrict their freedom up to the OfS scheme. The same students would have the right to have OIA consider their complaint. You can’t remove the lecturer’s right via coordination – because OIA can’t consider it. And I don’t see how you can remove the right of the student to have OIA consider their complaint in a different process and against a different set of tests. And it would obviously be chaos if two complaints schemes addressed the same incident.

Perhaps more importantly, when asked, Dandridge said that “we think” there is a “serious and significant” issue with academic freedom and freedom of speech in universities. I’m not sure I’ve heard OfS say that before – there’s no evidence of OfS reaching that corporate conclusion at its board, and indeed the last time the OfS board considered this three years ago it approved a paper that appeared to conclude the diametric opposite.

As a reminder, in a board paper in September 2018, OfS said that it had:

…not received any evidence to demonstrate that providers are not using best efforts to tackle this problem on campus and to keep debate as civil as possible.

And it’s not as if it didn’t do its homework:

We obtained and examined a range of material concerning free speech through public interest disclosure, press office inquiries, as well as the Prevent data. Thousands of events take place on campus every year; there are only issues at a few but, when these issues arise, they usually gain substantial media coverage and such media coverage propagates myths.”

Overall it concluded that:

We have found no evidence of free speech being systematically suppressed. Our experience to date is that providers are working hard to be compliant with their duty under section 43 of the 1986 Education Act.

This wasn’t an individual academic or a pundit – it’s the universities regulator asserting there’s a problem when it has previously said there isn’t one and with no evidence to back up the assertion.

2 responses to “Shouldn’t OfS have some evidence when it says there’s a problem with free speech on campus?

  1. The new found willingness of the regulator to back up to government positions without evidence (and, as here, in contradiction of previous evidence) is alarming.

    There’s bits of the Q&S consultation lifted straight from Mail on Sunday editorials, which does not bode well for the sector either.

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