Universities must stop using equality laws as an excuse to restrict free speech, the head of the higher education watchdog has warned.
Susan Lapworth, chief executive of the Office for Students, said that “too often” universities are curtailing free speech by “leaning more fully” into their equality duties “than the law supports”.
Universities have a legal duty under the Equality Act 2010 to eliminate discrimination, harassment and victimisation on the basis of characteristics including age, disability, religion, sex, gender reassignment and sexual orientation.
However, the Office for Students will warn universities on Thursday that policies which promote a particular protected characteristic “to the detriment of others”, may “amount to unlawful discrimination” and could have the effect of “curtailing” freedom of expression.
Ms Lapworth said that the new guidance drawn up by the regulator highlights the “importance of universities really understanding the nature of that free speech duty, alongside their equality duties”.
She added: “Too often we see universities not properly understanding that legal framing, and perhaps leaning more fully into the equality duties than we think that the law supports, and we are concerned that that is acting to curtail free speech in some circumstances.”
‘An insidious grip of self-censorship’
University administrators still claim freedom of speech on campus “isn’t a significant issue”, when “it is”, Ms Lapworth said.
She said: “We think that the issues around free speech are too complex and too important to reduce to a small tally of events that don’t go ahead or a small number of high profile, no-platformed speakers.”
The regulator’s guidance for vice-chancellors will highlight a recent survey by King’s College London showing that over a third of students felt that free speech is very or fairly threatened at their university, and research by the think tank Policy Exchange showing that 32 per cent of academics who view themselves as Right-wing have refrained from airing their views in their teaching and research.
Ms Lapworth said universities would also be shown evidence by the think tank that “many academics appear to be falling victim to an insidious grip of self-censorship”.
It follows a string of examples where academics have been no-platformed or faced calls to resign for their gender-critical views.
Prof Kathleen Stock was forced out of her post in the philosophy department of Sussex University last year after she stated the difference between biological sex and a person’s gender identity and raised concerns about the erosion of women’s rights, which led to accusations of transphobia from students.
LGBT representatives at the University of Cambridge recently called for a talk with Helen Joyce, a gender-critical feminist, to be cancelled and Prof Pippa Rogerson, master of Gonville and Caius College, told students she would boycott the event because of Ms Joyce’s “hateful” views.
‘Important legal obligations relating to freedom of speech’
Ms Lapworth said: “Universities have important legal obligations relating to freedom of speech and academic freedom within the law, including obligations that relate to their policies and processes. I hope that 2023 will be the year when those looking at our sector will see university leaders proactively focusing on their compliance with these obligations.”
The warning comes as the regulator and universities prepare for new duties under the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, currently passing through parliament, which will require them to “actively promote” freedom of speech, rather than just secure it.
Dr Hollie Chandler, head of policy at the Russell Group, said: “The OfS is right to highlight the importance of free speech and academic freedom and university leaders are already playing an active role in upholding these values on campuses around the UK.
“Last year, senior leaders across the Russell Group reiterated their commitment to defending and maintaining free speech in a joint statement which underlined this as a core value at the heart of universities’ purpose as academic institutions.”TIOB News