By Guy Taylor, Investigations Editor
The Government’s proposal of a Free Speech Champion has received a mixed response from Bristol University groups.
An announcement this week from The Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, proposing a ‘free speech champion’ who would investigate issues such as no platforming of speakers at universities, could influence political discussion at the University of Bristol.
The Minister’s plans, outlined on 16 February, could make universities and students’ unions legally required to promote free speech, in an attempt to ‘stamp out unlawful “silencing” on campuses’.
Our universities have a long and proud history of being places where students and academics can express themselves freely, challenge views and cultivate an open mind.— Gavin Williamson (@GavinWilliamson) February 16, 2021
That’s why I’m taking measures to strengthen free speech in higher educationhttps://t.co/ipC9NxaZ0V
Under the proposed plans the higher education regulator, The Office for Students, would have the power to impose sanctions, including financial penalties, for breaches of the condition.
The proposal has received a mixed response from groups at the University. Many have expressed scepticism at the extent of the free speech crisis at the university.
Responding to the proposals, Bristol alumna and Vice President for higher education at the National Union of Students, Hillary Gyebi Ababio, said: ‘There is no evidence of a freedom of expression crisis on campus, and students’ unions are constantly taking positive steps to help facilitate the thousands of events that take place each year.
‘At a time when students are facing untold hardship, the government would be much better advised to focus on providing the practical support that students desperately need, through maintenance grants, no detriment policies and funding to eradicate digital poverty, rather than attacking the very institutions that have stepped up to fill the gaps in support being offered.
‘We recognise this announcement as an opportunity for us to prove once and for all that there is not an extensive problem with freedom of expression across higher education.’
📢Listen to Hillary, our Vice President for HE, explain why the government's free speech proposals are not needed pic.twitter.com/DiJdw5DepK— NUS UK #StudentsDeserveBetter (@nusuk) February 16, 2021
A spokesperson from the Bristol SU stated that: ‘It’s difficult to know how this proposal will affect the University of Bristol, although the government seems to think the issue of free speech at universities is much larger than our experience.
‘The Bristol SU follows the University of Bristol Freedom of Speech Code of Practice and we are committed to freedom of expression. The SU receives around 300 External Speaker requests per year, and in the previous three years for which we hold records, we have not refused any speakers due to their views.’
Speaking to Epigram, Harry Walker, head of the Bristol Free Speech Society also doubted the motivations behind the policy.
‘I don’t see it as anything other than a way for the government to get a few points for a quick cheap and easy win; I don’t think it remotely addresses the needs of students at this time,’ he said.
He also doubted the extent to which it will remain a politically neutral champion.
He did remain open to some potential positives of the legislation, arguing that ‘there are problems with cancel culture and de-platforming, and we do need to talk about it.’
‘In some issues ‘what the university has done, rather than being transparent and having the guts to make a decision, has proceeded to kick the can down the road.’
‘A free speech champion could play a mediating role and facilitate the university to actually play this mediating role in disputes.’
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Issuing a statement on the proposals in the Government policy paper, The Russell Group stated that: ‘It is important that proposals... if taken forward, are evidence-based and proportionate, with due care taken to ensure academic freedom and institutional autonomy.
‘Government should support existing work by universities and students’ unions to defend and maintain freedom of expression on campus, rather than adding unnecessary and burdensome bureaucracy.’
However this policy will be implemented, it is another example of the increasing relevance of free speech as a key political issue at universities across the country.
Featured Image: Cameron Scheijde / Epigram
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