Free speech is now compulsory at UK universities

A new government body will hold universities accountable for protecting free speech. But some say it could be overly bureaucratic, while others fear it could become too powerful.

Lydia Morrish
Lydia Morrish NewsMavens, United Kingdom
Source: WikiTribune
Free speech is now compulsory at UK universities - NewsMavens
College students walk to class on campus. Wikimedia Commons

Why this story matters:

Against a backdrop of "no-platforming" controversial speakers, the opening up of "safe spaces" and protests over offensive characters, the UK is launching a new regulator in April to clean up the higher education system.

Along with ensuring that students -- who pay up to £9,000 a year for their education -- get value for their money, the Office for Students (OfS) will be watching over institutions who fail to keep university debates "open".

The idea has already proved controversial. Critics have said the "Office for State Control" would be a more fitting title for the group, warning it was “dangerous for democracy" given its extensive powers. 

However, as the world and most of Europe takes a close look at free speech, what it means and who it should apply to, the OfS could not have come at a more significant time.

UK and its European neighbors must decide where the balance lies between freedom of speech and the desire to be protected against harmful material or expression.

It seems the UK has decided outright that free speech will be protected in all cases, and educational institutions should be places "that open minds not close them," as Britain's former universities minister said.

Freedom of expression is enshrined in law throughout Europe, with Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights. The Education Act of 1986 provided an extra layer at British universities. 

Will the new body set a precedent for the rest of Europe? It's anyone's position to guess -- you are, by law, free to do so.

human rights,youtheducation

Details from the story:

  • Journalist Michela Wrong said she was "vetted" before giving a talk at a UK university, which prompted her to cancel the visit.
  • Universities were once seen as havens of free speech, an open space of contrasting ideas and debate resulting in a fusion of contemporary thought, are now seen as places that stop the expression of ideas they find offensive.
  • The new regulator for British universities, the Office for Students, launches on April 1. It has more powers than its predecessor and can fine or put sanctions on universities who don't comply with it.
  • Free speech issues have become synonymous with universities, who have been criticized for "no-platforming" policies that ban controversial speakers.
  • 55 percent of the UK educational institutions have banned or actively censored on campus, according to a Spiked report.
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