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FreedomOfSpeechOnCampus-UK.pdf(file size: 396 KB, MIME type: application/pdf)

A paper about academic freedom published by Universities UK on 18 February 2011

Freedom of Speech on Campus

Rights and responsibilities in UK universities

Description (by Universities UK)

This report considers the role of universities in promoting academic freedom and freedom of speech, and some of the constraints surrounding these freedoms.

The report starts by examining the meaning of academic freedom and freedom of speech: concepts which are often invoked but rarely defined. It then explores the contemporary context in which universities are operating, both in terms of the diversity of current student populations, and the wider national environment. It summarises the relevant law, and describes the Government’s security strategy and other security initiatives and structures. It then reviews the various ways in which universities from across the UK have addressed these challenges and sought to reconcile differing priorities, drawing on an on-line survey conducted by Universities UK of all its members in 2010.

Despite media accusations of complacency by universities in relation to security matters, the survey findings confirm how unjustified such accusations are and how seriously universities take their responsibilities in relation to the safety and security of their staff and students, alongside their obligations to protect and promote free speech and academic freedom.


The issues covered in this report are relevant to every higher education institution in the UK, as well as to wider society.

Violent extremism is one of the greatest threats to the liberty and safety of citizens in modern times. To an extent unprecedented in history, individuals acting alone or in small groups have the ability to cause mass murder in pursuit of a political cause. Recruitment to the cause is through diverse routes and secretive processes.

The Director of MI5 confirmed in October last year that the country continues to face a real threat from Al Qaeda-related terrorism. He observed that the threat is diverse in both geography and levels of skill involved, but it is persistent and dangerous and trying to control it involves a continual invisible struggle. Counter-terrorist capabilities have improved in recent years but there remains a serious risk of a lethal attack taking place. He saw no reason to believe that the position will significantly improve in the immediate future.

Prime Minister David Cameron, in his speech to the Munich Security Conference on 5 February 2011, spoke of young men who find it hard to identify with traditional Islam practised at home by their parents, yet also find it hard to identify with Britain too, because of the weakening of collective identity. He maintained that, ‘[u]nder the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream.’

In the eyes of some commentators, universities are trouble spots. They have large assemblies of intelligent young adults; their students join clubs and societies, including Islamic and other faith societies; they are institutions accustomed to debate and to protest; and tensions can arise and sometimes erupt between different political, racial and religious groups on campus. Moreover, it transpires that a number of those involved in violent terrorism in recent years have been university graduates, and some of them former student leaders of Islamic student societies.

Indeed, the setting up of the Working Group behind this report was prompted by the events of Christmas Day 2009 when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was apprehended in attempting to blow up a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. Eighteen months previously he had graduated from University College London, where he had also been president of the student Islamic Society. An independent inquiry chaired by Professor Dame Fiona Caldicott concluded unequivocally that there was no evidence to suggest that he had been radicalised during his time as a student, and MI5 see the hand of the Yemen-based preacher Anwar Al Awlaqi in his conversion to violent extremism.

Universities have wide-ranging responsibilities. They are open institutions where academic freedom and freedom of speech are fundamental to their functioning; where debate, challenge and dissent are not only permitted but expected, and where controversial and offensive ideas are likely to be advanced. Intellectual freedom is fundamental to their mission, their teaching and their research.

But all freedoms have limits imposed by law, in order to protect the rights and freedoms of others. The rules are neither simple nor easy always to apply; and they continue to change. The Equality Act 2010 requires universities to protect certain defined characteristics; and there is a new regulatory structure which separates students’ unions constitutionally from their host universities in England and Wales and places them under the regulatory control of the Charity Commission.

Universities need to go beyond the minimum prescribed by law to ensure openness and transparency in their internal relations, that meetings of student societies are open to all and that views expressed at them are open to challenge. This is to engage, and not to marginalise, different cultures. Universities need also to ensure that potentially aberrant behaviour is challenged and communicated to the police where appropriate. But it is emphatically not their function to impede the exercise of fundamental freedoms, in particular freedom of speech, through additional censorship, surveillance or invasion of privacy.

Following the events of December 2009 it became clear that there was little guidance available to universities in this area, and that it would be helpful to provide greater clarity in relation to the legal framework within which universities must operate, and more information about how other universities had been addressing these challenges. Experience has actually been very different in different universities.

It was with a view to filling these gaps that Universities UK invited me to chair a Working Group to consider these issues and to report. I am grateful to all who have contributed to it.

Professor Malcolm Grant
University College London

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