Next year, the higher education regulator will prioritize freedom of speech. OfS is anticipated to acquire new authority to control English issues relating to free speech.
Despite the regulator only receiving about 60 complaints over the last four years, they will prioritize free speech and “off-limits” topics on college campuses in the coming year.
According to Susan Lapworth, the chief regulator for the OfS, students’ experiences in higher education in England are “not just measured through statistics” and may be influenced by how the institutions they attend feel about things like free speech.
We take note of the numerous press reports on incidents that are concerning in this regard, as well as the roughly 60 notifications we have received on free speech-related problems since 2018.”
Although a small number of such cases is too many, this is not just about high-profile cases where speakers have been turned away or barred based on their public statements.
We worry that in the academic setting, attitudes and cultural presumptions prevent discussions from taking place, imply that certain subjects are taboo, or that those who legitimately disagree with a position might feel silenced.
The 232 notifications for all categories that the OfS received in 2021 alone contrast with the 60 complaints or notifications from students or their representatives since 2018.
The English higher education regulator will start polling academic staff and students about their opinions on free speech beginning in the following academic year.
As a result of legislation being considered by the parliament, the OfS is anticipated to gain new authority to control matters of free speech involving universities and student unions. But peers removed a provision that would have given people a new statutory right to sue universities if they felt their right to free speech had been violated, significantly altering the bill in the Lords.
However, Lapworth stated that universities needed to strike a balance between free speech and “careful consideration of potentially competing for legal rights and obligations,” such as the protections against unlawful discrimination and harassment in the Equality Act, when introducing the OfS’s 2021–22 annual report.
“Given the significance of free speech, it is appropriate that we continually evaluate our protections. However, accurate data must be used to support regulatory action rather than incomplete analyses or inflammatory stories, according to Chandler.
Contrary to some media reports, the vast majority of events with divisive speakers are successful. For the OfS to maintain the trust of students, staff, and the sector at large as it assumes more responsibility for free speech, it will be essential for it to be independent and capable of rendering fair decisions.
According to Lapworth, the OfS is also seeking input on how universities handle harassment and sexual misconduct on campus and will carry out additional research, including a pilot student survey. We don’t know much about sexual misconduct incidents or how common they are in various colleges or universities, according to Lapworth.
However, it issued a warning: “Where digital delivery is poor or used as a cheap substitute for traditional teaching, it undermines the credibility of the good and can reduce the sense of community that comes from getting together in person.” The regulator acknowledged that online or digital learning played “an increasing and innovative role” in higher education.