The government is trying to clamp down on a university free speech crisis that doesn’t exist

Just six out of 10,000 SU events were cancelled in a single academic year

The UK government is trying to clamp down on a university free speech crisis that doesn’t seem to exist.

In the 2019/20 academic year, just six out of the 10,000 Student Union events that featured external speakers ended up being cancelled.

Commenting on this, an NUS spokesperson said “there is no evidence of a freedom of speech crisis on campuses.”

A recent survey by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) revealed that students don’t see free speech as a particularly pressing issue on campus.

Just 14 per cent of students disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement: “I feel comfortable expressing my viewpoint, even if my peers disagree with me.”

In spite of this, the government’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill seems to be at the forefront of its agenda, with amendments being discussed in the House of Commons today.

The bill aims “to strengthen existing legislation intended to uphold freedom of speech and academic freedom in registered higher education providers and students’ unions.”

Under the proposed legislation, universities and SUs would face greater legal responsibilities to police free speech on campus and could face disciplinary action if they don’t keep in line.

Basically, if an external speaker feels their talk has been cancelled unfairly, and the effect of this has been curtailing their free speech, they will be able to sue the uni or SU where it was due to be hosted.

In reality, it’s often the case that the reason for a talk’s cancellation is because an individual society is unable to pay security costs.

The NUS suggested that the bill should be amended to help reflect this. “Through grant funding, students’ unions should be suitably resourced so they can meet the security costs for external speaker events,” a spokesperson said.

Following the rejection of this amendment, the NUS argued that the government is “disincentivising future external speaker events on campuses by proposing that SUs should be exposed to potentially large financial liabilities without support.”

Academics for Academic Freedom (AFAF) is a group of lecturers seeking to defend free speech on campus. Board member and professor at the University of Kent, Ellie Lee, told The Tab: “It is true that student unions organise many events with speakers.

“In my experience they don’t offer support when attempts are made to No Platform though (at my University, this happened when Professor Selina Todd was coming to speak).

“It is also true that some student groups do campaign to cancel speakers. These campaigns may not always be successful, but they create a chilling climate for free speech in universities, which puts students off from speaking their minds.”

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said: “The evidence showing that free speech is under attack on university campuses is mounting. Even in the time since we last debated the Freedom of Speech Bill, the UK has become one of the only countries in the top tiers of academically free countries to be significantly downgraded by the Academic Freedom Index.

“We cannot sit by any longer and allow an intolerant few to shut down debate and free expression. That is why we have strengthened and bolstered the Bill even further with today’s amendments.”

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