To ask the Secretary of State for Education, whether he plans to take steps in response to proposals by Sheffield university to pay some students to monitor and report on statements made by other students which might be regarded as micro-aggressions; what progress he has made on bringing forward proposals to safeguard free speech in colleges and universities; and if he will draw the lessons of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to the attention of college and university staff during this 70th anniversary year of the author’s death.
This government will ensure that our universities are places where free speech can thrive and work to strengthen academic freedoms. The freedom to express views openly, challenge ideas and engage in robust debate is crucial to the student experience and to democracy. Lawful freedom of speech and the right to discuss all kinds of issues is an integral part of our higher education system.
Under the Education (No 2) Act (1986), higher education providers have a specific duty to take reasonably practicable steps to secure freedom of speech within the law for staff, students and visiting speakers. Higher education providers also have clear responsibilities under the Equality Act (2010).
Higher education providers should discharge their responsibilities fully and have robust policies and procedures in place to comply with the law and to investigate and address incidents reported to them. Universities, as autonomous bodies regulated by the Office for Students, should ensure that they are balancing their legal duties carefully and proportionately.
The government worked with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, who published clear guidance in February 2019 on freedom of speech in higher education to support higher education providers and students’ unions in delivering their duties.
The government will be looking closely at how well higher education providers are meeting their obligations and will consider whether further action is needed, working with a range of partners.