The free speech debate in universities has become increasingly heated in recent years, with Higher Education Providers (HEPs) accused of not doing enough to uphold freedom of expression on campuses.

Having pledged to address the issue in the 2019 Conservative election manifesto, the Government published a policy paper on 16 February 2021 containing proposals to “strengthen free speech and academic freedom” in universities.

The paper has prompted many in the higher education sector to restate their commitment to free speech, and question the Government’s priorities at a time when staff and students are dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.

This Insight looks at issues central to the debate. It considers ‘no platform’ policies, ‘safe spaces’, and the claim that a ‘chilling effect’ is stifling diversity of opinion within universities.

‘No platforming’

The National Union of Students (NUS) introduced a No Platform policy in 1974. It prevents individuals known to hold racist or fascist views from speaking at NUS events and covers six organisations at present. Not all students’ unions have adopted the policy.

Despite the narrow NUS conception of ‘no platforming’, the term is often used to describe any occasion when a speaker has been unable to speak at an event organised at a university. This includes recent high-profile cases involving former Home Secretary Amber Rudd and one-time UKIP candidate Carl Benjamin.

In 2018, the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) published a report on freedom of speech in universities. It said that student groups don’t have to invite particular speakers and can change their minds after inviting someone.

But the report also highlighted cases of disruptive protests on campuses. It deemed these unacceptable when they have prevented speakers from appearing at events and intimidated those in attendance.

How common is ‘no platforming’?

A 2020 survey of 61 students’ unions (p.8) found that just six events from almost 10,000 (0.06%) involving an external speaker were cancelled in 2019-20. Four were cancelled due to not following administrative processes, one involved a pyramid scheme fraudster, and the other was moved to a larger venue because it was a rally featuring then-Labour-leader Jeremy Corbyn.

The Office for Students, which regulates higher education in England, collects data from HEPs on external speakers. Its official figures show that fewer than 0.1% of requests for events or external speakers were blocked in 2017-18 (data is not yet available beyond this).

These figures are in line with the conclusions of the JCHR, which “did not find the wholesale censorship of debate in universities which media coverage has suggested.”

‘Safe spaces’

The Government’s February policy paper raised the issue of “statements” introduced at universities that might limit free speech.

Some students’ unions have adopted ‘safe space’ policies. These set out how participants should behave in meetings and events on campus. They may restrict the expression of certain views or words that could make some groups feel unsafe.

In 2021, several students’ union presidents published Taking the Debate Forward, a report looking at free speech in universities. They argue that safe space policies address racist, sexist, and homophobic behaviour, and exist to ensure everyone can feel comfortable participating in events.

Safety over debate?

The 2021 report acknowledges, however, that the framing of safe space policies can cause confusion. It said:

We accept that there is a significant danger that policies that stress “safety” may end up perceived as trying to create an environment where robust debate, challenge and difficult ideas are not welcome.

This was also highlighted in the JCHR report, which noted the concept of ‘safe spaces’ has been problematic when extended too far, including occasions when pro-life, humanist, and secular groups have struggled getting representation at freshers’ fairs.

Self-censorship: a ‘chilling effect’?

The Government’s policy paper is particularly concerned with an alleged “chilling effect” of “increasing intolerance” on campus, which it claims has led some students and staff to self-censor their views.

A 2019 report by King’s College London (KCL) showed that a minority of students feel unable to express their beliefs openly because they’re “scared of disagreeing with [their] peers.” This sentiment is especially felt among right-leaning students.

In 2020, the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange published a report that suggested similar pressures are felt by some academics, who cite perceived hostility from colleagues and a fear of reputational harm as reasons to self-censor.

The KCL report also found that 26% of students think violence is justifiable for preventing the espousal of perceived hate speech. This figure is not significantly higher than the 20% of the general public who feel the same, so it’s unclear to what extent this particular issue is exclusive to universities.

Are universities too left wing?

A 2017 report by a neoliberal think tank, the Adam Smith Institute, argued that universities have a left-liberal bias. It says this poses a threat to freedom of speech and diversity of viewpoints on campus.

The British Journal of Sociology published a 2020 study demonstrating that professors in European universities are more liberal and left-leaning than other professionals.

However, the same study found little evidence of an exceptional ideological monoculture on university campuses and noted that there’s “no evidence that professors bring their political orientation into the classroom.”

Further reading

The Library briefing Freedom of speech in universities – is there a problem? considers the existing legal framework for upholding freedom of speech on campus and explains the Government’s recent proposals to strengthen regulations.

About the author: Joe Lewis is a researcher at the House of Commons Library specialising in further and higher education policy.