Oran Barr, News Editor.
Conservative MP and universities minister, Jo Johnson, has announced plans to directly penalise campuses which do not uphold free-speech.
This move comes after a number of university’s have opted to “no-platform” speakers that represent certain ideologies or beliefs, and seek to create “safe-spaces” on campus.
Whilst exact punishments for universities that do not abide by these new policies remains unclear, it is speculated that the Office for Students (OfS) retains the right to impose financial penalties, suspension, or most drastically, deregistration, to any and all universities which do not commit to free-speech.
The OfS will be granted official power in April 2018 and will only hold jurisdiction over English universities initially, but a successful implementation of this programme certainly leaves it open to being mimicked by the rest of the UK.
Mr. Johnson’s belief is that: “No-platforming and safe spaces shouldn’t be used to shut down legitimate free speech.”
“Our young people and students need to accept the legitimacy of healthy vigorous debate in which people can disagree with one another. That’s how ideas get tested, prejudices exposed and society advances. Universities mustn’t be places in which free speech is stifled.”
The OfS believes that protecting free-speech on campus is fundamental to ensuring that students develop independent and critical thinking and that “free speech is one of the foundations on which our higher education tradition is built.”
A survey last year found that most university students (63%) are in favour of the National Union of Students having the option to indefinitely “no-platfrom” a speaker, with 54% believing the policy should extend to “those who could be found intimidating.” Research by Spiked magazine, backed by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, also found that more than nine in ten UK universities are restrictive of free speech. (94%) This marks a 14% increase since only 2015.
The consultation stated: “It (free speech) is important on many levels, but perhaps the most important aspect of it is that it develops and encourages a culture of vigorous thought and debate. It allows for conventional wisdom to be rigorously challenged.
“Students develop the ability to think critically, to challenge extremist narratives, and put forward new and controversial ideas. These are essential skills in a modern, forward-facing society.”
“In a democratic country, we strongly believe it is in the public interest to preserve and encourage freedom of speech within the law. This is why the responsibility of universities to actively secure freedom of speech was enshrined in legislation.”
A number of professors have spoken out in support of the enterprise, perhaps most notably Brian Cox, who said: “I support this initiative. It is the duty of Universities to produce graduates who understand & enjoy robust debate & intellectual challenge.”
Whether or not this legislation proves effective at dismantling the “no-platform” practices of modern universities will not be apparent until the second quarter of 2018, however, universities should start preparing now for the serious penalties that will be ousted upon them if they fail to comply.