The Bureau of Students will make free speech and “off-limits” topics on college campuses one of its top priorities for next year, despite the fact that the regulator has only received about 60 complaints in the past four years.
Susan Lapworth, the chief regulator of the OfS, said students’ experience of higher education in England “is not measured by statistics alone”, and could be influenced by attitudes to issues such as freedom of expression on the institutions they visit.
“We note the frequent press reports of incidents of concern in this area, in addition to the approximately 60 reports we have received since 2018 on freedom of expression issues,” Lapworth said.
“It is not just about high-profile cases where speakers have been excluded or rejected based on their public statements – although a small number of such cases is too many.
“We are concerned about the perception that attitudes and cultural assumptions in the academic environment lead to discussions not being brought up, topics being tacitly considered off-limits, or people who legitimately disagree on issues being silenced .”
The 60 complaints or reports from students or their representatives since 2018 contrast with the 232 reports across all categories received by the OfS in 2021 alone.
The higher education regulator for England will survey students about their impressions of freedom of expression from next year and will survey academic staff for the first time.
The OfS is expected to gain new powers to regulate freedom of speech involving universities and student associations, as a Result of legislation passing through parliament. But the bill has been significantly amended in the Lords, with peers scrapping a clause that would have created a new legal right to sue universities by those who felt their freedom of speech had been violated.
But Lapworth – who introduced the OfS’s 2021-22 annual report – said universities needed to balance free speech with “careful consideration of potentially competing legal rights and obligations” such as the protections against unlawful discrimination and harassment in the Equality Act .
Hollie Chandler, head of policy for the Russell Group of universities, said that while the OfS was right to highlight the issue, university leaders were already “playing an active role” in enforcing free speech on UK campuses.
“Given the importance of freedom of expression, it is good that we take a closer look at the protection. But regulatory action should be based on accurate data rather than partial analysis or inflammatory narratives,” Chandler said.
“Contrary to some media reports, the vast majority of events with controversial speakers go ahead successfully. As the OfS takes on additional responsibilities in the area of freedom of expression, its independence and ability to make impartial assessments will be critical to ensuring that students, staff and the wider industry have confidence in its approach .”
Lapworth said the OfS is also advising on how universities deal with harassment and sexual misconduct on campus, and will conduct further research, including a pilot survey of students. “We have minimal information about sexual misconduct cases and their prevalence at different universities or colleges,” Lapworth said.
The regulator said online or digital learning is playing an “increasing and innovative role” in higher education, but warned: “Where digital delivery is bad or used as a cheap substitute for traditional education, it undermines the credibility of the good and can it enhance the sense of community that comes from coming together in person.”