Universities face fines for not protecting free speech

Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson has called on the new higher education regulator, the Office for Students or OfS, to champion free speech and openness in United Kingdom universities, in a statement published by the government.

Separately, in an interview in The Times, he has warned universities that they must pledge to protect free speech or risk being blacklisted by the OfS; and if they fail to protect free speech, they will face sanctions in the form of fines, suspension or deregistration by the OfS.

Johnson’s objective is to ensure that students are exposed to a wide range of issues and ideas in a safe environment without fear of censorship, rebuke or reprisal.

He said: “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.”

It is expected that the move will force universities to ensure that the growth of safe spaces and the drive by student unions to offer 'no platform' to controversial speakers does not shut down free speech.

He told The Times that all universities would have a statutory duty to make a commitment to open debate in their governance documents as a condition of registration with the OfS.

In his statement, Johnson said: “Free speech is one of the foundations on which our higher education tradition is built. It goes to the heart of our democratic values and is a principle I know universities hold dear.

“I know there is good practice out there, and am proud that some of our university leaders and academics have publicly defended free speech. But there are still examples of censorship where groups have sought to stifle those who do not agree with them,” he said.

“This is why I want the OfS to work with universities to encourage a culture of openness and debate and ensure that those with different backgrounds or perspectives can flourish in a higher education environment.”

He made the statement as part of the consultation into how the OfS will function – to fulfil the aims of ensuring teaching standards rise and that all students receive a high-quality education.

Earlier in the year the government extended the statutory duty to secure free speech so that it will apply to all providers of higher education registered with the OfS.

The consultation is on the ‘technical details’ of how the OfS will operate. This includes looking at:
  • • Compulsory participation in the Teaching Excellence Framework or TEF (which benchmarks teaching quality) for higher education providers with more than 500 students;

  • • Publication and justification of high salaries for senior staff;

  • • Transparency on how students can transfer between courses and empowerment of students through clearer student contracts.
The outcome of the consultation will form part of the OfS’s ‘Regulatory Framework’, which will come into force for the academic year 2019-20.

In the interview in The Times Johnson also said he would push for more two-year degrees to save students money on fees and maintenance costs, action to curb degree inflation, and measures to tackle cheating and plagiarism.

'Modern regulator’

Sir Michael Barber, chair of the Office for Students, said the consultation document sets out a framework for a new era in higher education.

“The Office for Students will be a modern regulator that consistently puts the interests of students – short, medium and long-term – first.”

He said the document sets out a bold agenda and highlights the importance from a student perspective of fair access, excellent teaching, progression into worthwhile jobs and value for money.

He added that ensuring freedom of speech and learning how to disagree with diverse opinions and differing views of the world is a fundamental aspect of learning at university, which the OfS will promote “vigorously”.

Commenting on the consultation document and the new regulatory environment which encourages the introduction of more higher education providers, Professor Janet Beer, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of Liverpool University, said a key challenge for the OfS is to integrate students and the National Union of Students into its decision-making, “so that it is truly the Office for Students”.

She said: “The Office for Students should ensure that competition works in the interests of students. This includes ensuring that new higher education providers are high quality and deliver good outcomes for students. It is important that the OfS works with universities to add value for students, rather than just adding to the regulatory burden for all.”

She added that Universities UK looks forward to working with the Office for Students to promote the importance of free speech.

“There is already a legal duty on the sector to secure free speech within the law and universities take these responsibilities very seriously. It is absolutely crucial that universities remain places where controversial subjects are discussed and ideas challenged.”

The OfS will be officially launched on 1 April 2018 and has been created to allow more choice for students and more competition in the interest of students.

It has been established as a single regulator in England to replace the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access.