Universities Minister Sam Gyimah this week promised to crack down on the “institutional hostility” of safe-space and no-platform policies, with the first government interventions on the issue in 30 years. At a closed-door free speech summit chaired by Gyimah on Thursday 3rd May, the minister called for clarification over guidance offered in the higher educational sector, and said the government will work with university to “provide clarity of the rules for both students and universities.”
Gyimah said preventing people speaking at university campuses due to their views was “chilling”, and said new guidance should “prevent bureaucrats or wreckers on campus from exploiting gaps for their own ends.” He said: “There is a risk that overzealous interpretation of a dizzying variety of rules is acting as a brake on legal free speech on campus.”
The summit, which was held in London, brought together a number of organisations, including the Charity Commission and Universities UK (UUK). The Department of Education has not offered more information on what the content of the guidelines would be, only that they would “provide clarity of the rules for both students and universities.”
This will be the first government intervention into freedom of speech on campuses for more than three decades. The last such intervention was the free speech duty, introduced in 1986, which stated universities had a responsibility to protect freedom of speech within the law.
This announcement indicates Gyimah will be following in the footsteps of his predecessor Jo Johnson in focussing on the issue of free speech. Gyimah wrote in The Times this week that he had “fallen foul of censorship” due to “unseen and pernicious tentacles of bureaucracy” when he visited a university campus.
The move is the latest in a series of government statements on free speech on campus. At the end of last year, Johnson said the Office for Students (OfS), which came into force on April 1st, would have the power to fine universities that failed to protect free speech.
Speaking to Felix, Alex Chippy Compton, President of Imperial College Union, said: “While the Government is pandering to its base about ‘attacks on free speech’, here at Imperial College Union we are working with our members on real risks to students’ education and wellbeing. In the last few weeks alone, we have lobbied College to refund students for teaching missed due to strikes, work on a student support strategy, and follow our recommendations to improve the Imperial Bursary to widen access to Imperial.”
“We invite Mr Gyimah, and the other politicians and commentators who have conjured up this false narrative about students, to leave the safe spaces of their offices and online echo chambers and come to Beit Quad to learn what student leaders are really doing and how they can help improve our students’ university experience.”
In recent years there have been a number of high-profile controversies over visiting speakers to UK universities: in 2015, Manchester Student Union refused to grant alt-right figurehead Milo Yiannopoulos the right to speak, saying his views would incite hatred against trans students, while King’s College London had to be evacuated in March after protesters stormed a talk by Carl Benjamin, a controversial British YouTuber who makes videos under the name Sargon of Akkad. Benjamin has frequently been described as a member of the alt-right, a label he rejects.
A number of media outlets have directed attention towards the policy of ‘no-platforming’, in which individuals are denied the right to speak on university campuses. The National Union of Students’ (NUS) No Platform Policy, prevents individuals or groups with racist or fascist views from speaking at NUS events. Six organisations fall under the policy, including the British National Party and English Defence League.
While Felix is not aware of recent incidents at Imperial, Imperial College Union policy states free speech needs to be balanced with student safety and commitment to equality and diversity.
The debate over whether or not universities in the UK are hostile to free speech is an ongoing one. The UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights published a report on free speech at universities earlier this year, stating “the extent to which students restrict free speech at universities should not be exaggerated.” The report stated it was “not a pervasive problem,” but identified university and student union policy could present a barrier to free speech.
The Spiked Free Speech University Rankings this year stated over half the UK universities surveyed had “actively censored ideas on campus”; the majority of policies the group singled out as suppressing freedom of speech were about preventing harassment, discrimination, or transphobia in the workplace. Commentators have called these rankings a “misrepresentation of freedom of debate on British campuses”, and said Spiked were “handmaidens of the alt-right”.
Alistair Jarvis, UUK’s Chief Executive, said: “Universities are committed to promoting and protecting free speech within the law…a small number of flash points do occasionally occur, on contentious or controversial issues, but universities do all they can to protect free speech so events can continue.”
Gordon Marsden, the shadow higher education minister, criticised the closed-doors nature of the summit, and described the announcement as “simply another piece of meaningless posturing from the government, while it has nothing practical to offer students dealing with record levels of debt.”