The universities minister, Jo Johnson, has said universities that use ‘No Platforming’ and ‘safe spaces’ to prevent free speech could face action from the Government’s new higher education regulator, the Office for Students (OfS). The Times have reported that this action could include powers to fine, suspend or even deregister universities if they “do not meet a statutory duty to commit to free speech in their governance documents.”
The Department for Education (DfE) added that the OfS will be able to hold universities to account on their duty to secure free speech – ensuring that staff, student unions, and student societies do not attempt to limit free speech.
‘No Platforming’ is a policy used by the National Union of Students (NUS), which asserts that certain people and organisations are not given a platform to speak. The term ‘safe spaces’ refers to environments where individuals can come together and feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, or harassment. Opponents to these policies, such as Jo Johnson, claim they stifle free speech.
Last year, the University of East Anglia was given an amber alert for free speech by Spiked magazine. The magazine also went so far to give UEA’s Student Union a red alert for banning and actively censoring ideas on campus.
Speaking to The Times, Mr Johnson said “young people and students need to accept the legitimacy of healthy vigorous debate in which people can disagree with one another.” He continued: “That’s how ideas get tested, prejudices exposed and society advances. Universities mustn’t be places in which free speech is stifled.”
On their official Twitter page, the DfE released a statement from Mr. Johnson, reiterating his previous comments. The post says “free speech is one of the foundations on which our higher education tradition is built. This is why I want the Office for Students to work with universities to encourage a culture of openness and debate.”
The NUS responded to this statement, claiming that Mr Johnson is releasing “a story where it appears [he] is helping students but without actually helping students.” They also add “the education system is collapsing around us and students can barely afford to eat,” and accuse Jo Johnson of distracting the public from these issues.
The universities minister’s free speech proposals and comments come as part of a general consultation which aims to work out how the OfS will operate in its regulation of English universities.
Commenting on the Freedom of Speech proposals, SU Campaigns and Democracy Officer Jack Robinson said “the minister talks tough, but in truth he’s rehashing a duty that has been on universities to protect freedom of speech since 1986.
“It proposes a code of practice we already have, and it certainly won’t stop students deciding for themselves what they want to stock in their shop, or deciding not to invite someone to an event because they are proponents of hate speech.”
Robinson also commented on the wider proposals of the OfS. He said “It’s called an ‘Office for Students’ but there’s not much in the 177 page document that addresses students’ and their families’ concerns about tuition fees and value for money.”
“Given the raft of hidden costs and charges that students face at university – along with the rocketing cost of accommodation and concerns that locals and students share alike about university expansion, we’d like to see a focus on student worries rather than what plays well in the Telegraph and Times.”
The SU also note that The Education Act 1986 already requires universities to “ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers.”