Westminster Higher Education Forum

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Next steps for freedom of speech in UK higher education

Morning, Tuesday, 23rd April 2024


This conference will examine the way forward for freedom of speech in higher education institutions in the UK.


It will bring together stakeholders, regulators and policymakers to discuss the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023, which aims to ensure that universities promote freedom of speech as a fundamental value.


Delegates will assess implications of the legislation for the HE sector, its staff and students. It will be an opportunity to consider the roles of stakeholders and policy in setting and implementing boundaries for discussion in higher education settings, and in society more widely.


The agenda also looks at the potential impact of the Office for Students’ new free speech complaints scheme on campus culture, academic freedom, teaching and research, as the OfS consults on the scheme and the future regulation of student unions.


As HEIs prepare for the Act to come into effect, delegates will examine implementation of key measures, including the expanded legal obligations of institutions and student unions (SUs) to secure and promote freedom of speech for staff, members and students, as well as visiting speakers.


Delegates will discuss the definition of new duties and conditions in practice and what they mean for provider decision-making, policies and governance, as well as how to balance new duties with the existing equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) policies of HEIs.


We also expect discussion on the character of student expression and culture on campus, looking at best practice for SUs when it comes to engaging with concerns of safety, harm and offence in the context of free speech, and what is needed for wider effective facilitation of open and supportive cultures of discussion at universities.


Further sessions will assess implications of new legislation for the structure of academic debate and curriculum design, examining strategies for ensuring quality in all aspects of course content creation, teaching and research. We also expect discussion on the ramifications of new legislation for wider debate outside higher education settings, as well as broader questions of institutional responsibility around free speech.


We are pleased to be able to include keynotes sessions with: Professor Adam Habib, Director, School of Oriental and African Studies; and Jo Nuckley, Head of Outreach and Insight, Office of the Independent Adjudicator.


Overall, areas for discussion include:

  • Freedom of speech on university campuses: likely implications of the Freedom of Speech Act 2023 for students, staff and society
  • Impact on HEIs: definition of new duties and compliance with statutory requirements - balancing competing responsibilities - processes for determining legitimate complaints
  • Campus conduct and culture: understanding the nature and drivers of expression on campus - trends in student views - methods for addressing harassment and discrimination
  • Free speech complaints: developing systems for addressing concerns in UK universities - proposals for the new OfS complaints scheme and next steps for implementation from August 2024
  • Academic freedom, teaching and research: curricular design and reading lists - considering implications for quality assurance - impact on academic enquiry and debate
  • Policy: assessing regulation and freedom of speech in higher education going forward - what is needed from proposed structures - the future for regulation of SUs


Keynote Speakers

Professor Adam Habib

Director, School of Oriental and African Studies

Jo Nuckley

Head of Outreach and Insight, Office of the Independent Adjudicator

Chair

Lord Griffiths of Burry Port

Speakers

Laura Moss

Partner, Charities and Social Enterprise, Wrigleys Solicitors

Dr Sammi Li

Assistant Director of Student Affairs, University of Birmingham

Professor Graham Gee

Director of Education, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Sheffield

Dr Bryn Harris

Chief Legal Counsel, Free Speech Union

Josh Freeman

Policy Manager, Higher Education Policy Institute

Dr Kelli Rudolph

Senior Lecturer, Classics and Philosophy, University of Kent; and Member, Council for the Defence of British Universities

Peter McColl

Director, Centre for Responsible Debate