What would work to improve free speech on campus?

The Office for Students’ Director for Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech will need to recognise how deeply entrenched different identities are in the debate over campus culture, and navigate very different perspectives on the same realities without being seen as captured by either.

That sounds like a line from the job ad for the role, but it’s actually a recommendation in a new report from the Policy Institute at King’s College London – which seems to imagine that everyone will somehow be able to magically forget that Arif Ahmed’s entrenched perspective on the issue is what appears to have secured him the gig.

But let’s imagine that higher education is an environment of goodwill, enthusiasm, compliance and memory loss.

Freedom of speech in UK higher education: Recommendations for policy and practice takes evidential highlights from the institute’s previous work in this area and attempts to shift the agenda in both universities and Ahmed’s intray away from clickbait culture war drama, and towards a more sober analysis of what is happening on a campus, and what might be done to fix things.

Or maybe it implores universities to not just fix things but to aspire to be excellent at this free speech thing. Or maybe that’s the problem.

The report sets out four types of practical interventions that providers might deploy in pursuit of their new duties:

  • Classroom discussion guidelines and geography (where teachers and students together create a set of guidelines that set out the norms for discussion and debate within the classroom)
  • Contact initiatives (where opportunities are created for polarised groups to come together outside of classrooms to discuss divisive issues and listen to one another)
  • Active listening training and coaching (something that it is suggested could or should be introduced for new students)
  • Codes of conduct (taking things like the “Chicago Principles” and adding things like “goals to increase the volume and diversity of debates and political groups on campus”)

The problem is that there’s not much evidence that doing any of that works. On “classroom discussion guidelines” for example, the report notes a focus group concern that classrooms are not the main site of self censorship on campus:

I feel like it might work in seminars and that kind of thing. But I don’t think it would stop the sort of biased culture in general. And I feel like a lot of these kind of discussions happen in halls, or houses or societies, that kind of thing.

Contact initiatives are critiqued on the basis that they require neutral agents to organise them and may not address “many of the conflicts happen in student housing”.

Active listening training and coaching may need students to be “asked to complete a workbook as part of their induction to reflect on the importance of sharing their own views responsibly, and learning to listen well to others” – but the questions of whether the training should be compulsory, or whether a student writing “this is bollocks” in their workbook should mean they are not allowed to proceed on said programme, are neatly avoided.

And students in their focus group weren’t entirely enamoured with codes of conduct either:

We already have [a code of conduct] and it’s unenforceable, so it just doesn’t work.

You have free speech policies already implemented and if they saw it from an authority kind of viewpoint people would laugh at it…and just mock it.

As such, in an ideal world, the authors would love universities to not just do the bare minimum, but to adopt an approach that works:

We need to develop a clear theory of change, drawing on existing research and experiments, and implement a programme of testing to understand how each action contributes (or doesn’t) to supporting free speech in universities. This would be particularly effective if the Free Speech Director and Office for Students have a core objective to not just regulate compliance with the legislation or achieve “minimum standards” but positively support universities through a programme of intervention design, testing and evaluation of “what works” in encouraging freedom of expression.

Of course there’s something quite compelling about the idea that universities adopt a “what works” approach to a given problem.

It certainly sounds better than a “fiddle about doing things that don’t work” approach, a “do things that have the opposite effect” approach, or a “chuck money, time and goodwill at the wall without having a scooby whether doing so will work” approach.

The problem is that with everything else going on in the sector and a declining unit of resource, it’s not unreasonable to ask how good one has get at this, how one might measure it, and how important this is when balanced against everything else that OfS says is important.

The report effectively adopts the approach embedded in the Access and Participation bit of OfS – which funds an independent charity to establish what works (the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO) to allow it to not just regulate compliance with the legislation or achieve “minimum standards”:

…but positively support universities through a programme of intervention design, testing and evaluation of “what works” in encouraging freedom of expression.

But in APP work, OfS also has some nationally agreed measures that appear in a dashboard, a process that requires providers to reflect on said measures, a requirement that providers plan to shift those measures, and a monitoring regime to ensure they are working.

In this free speech stuff, it’s really not clear what it is that providers or OfS are trying to achieve.

If the National Student Survey (NSS) question was the central measure, you might have thought that 86 per cent positivity might cause OfS to prioritise this legal duty in the same way it’s effectively abandoned its duties over electoral registration or consumer protection. But sabre rattlers in the culture wars were out in August arguing that 14 per cent negativity is a disaster:

And so, once you reach the end of the King’s report, you’re actually left with more questions than answers.

OfS has three main approaches to regulation. One demands minimum outcomes and then encourages competition for the rest (Quality). One demands deeper change and the creation of internal risk assessments and plans to close gaps (APP). One demands processes and wider legal compliance because they’re just the right things to do (governance, management, complaints and so on). Which will it be?

Will OfS demand culture change in classrooms or across student life? Will it judge compliance on the basis of effort, or attainment? If the former, how much effort? If the latter, should the NSS question score be the central measure? If not, what measures should be used? If so, will the result’s interpretation be flexed for provider and programme type or have a universal minimum and then some benchmarked maximums?

And as I say, if there’s a mixture of regulated minimums and aspirational maximums (which is how the rest of OfS works outside of APP work), as long as that bare minimum is in place, why on earth would a university prioritise all of this when it’s considering closing counselling, chopping modules or leaving an RAAC building unremediated because £9k fees are now worth £6k? Which student would choose a university on the basis of its free speech score?

As Smita Jamdar puts it:

They shouldn’t have to engage with ideas they don’t want to outside their studies and university/SU activities. None of the rest of us have to.

It may be that by developing ways of discussing hotly contested issue better in the classroom, people become better able & more willing to do so in their private lives. But if they don’t, that’s their prerogative. Our lives are not debating societies.

We can choose to switch off. If that means some people’s views mean they find it harder to find people to socialise with in my view that’s just the way it is. It’s bonkers to think “free speech” means other people have to give up their free time to spend it with you.

2 responses to “What would work to improve free speech on campus?

  1. This seems like another set of “unicorn safety regulations”. Of course, a horse with a giant horn in the centre of its head would be dangerous and should be a highly regulated item for people to own. It just so happens it isn’t real.

    18% feel they self censor – but we don’t know why. Let’s be generous and say that only half of those hold views that they should self censor on (a skill that is useful to learn, especially for the workplace); the other 9% I’m sure can find societies and spaces to discuss their niche views.

    I’d be much more interested in increased free speech in the workplace for employees, more ability to criticise the government (remember, you may be disinvited to speak to the gov if you’ve ever criticised them publicly) and a freer public media space (that doesn’t parrot the same right wing line all the time).

  2. This report and others confirm what we all know. There’s no magic bullet with free speech and not in a sector as diverse as HE which is influenced by so many contextual and societal pressures. The students surveyed here indicate there is a chilling effect on free speech and that they have to engage in self censorship. The problem with these surveys is that they throw a lot of light on perceptions at the cost of evidence, over and above a few anecdotes and reference to specific stories in the media.
    Whilst the report lists a series of policy and practice interventions, most if not all have already been trialled somewhere in the sector but the report does make two important points: 1) the key challenge is navigating ‘the more difficult and messier boundaries between offence, safety, threat and harm that any regulations [providers, students unions] and practice will need to engage with’ and 2) the opportunity for the ‘Office for Students to not just regulate compliance with the legislation or achieve “minimum standards” but positively support universities through a programme of intervention design, testing and evaluation of “what works” in encouraging freedom of expression’.

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