further & higher education

Promoting Free Speech Across Higher Education

further & higher education

08:45 - 15:10

Thursday 21 March 2019

etc. Venues – Marble Arch, Central London

This Forum will provide attendees with a comprehensive understanding of how to protect, promote and safeguard freedom of speech within universities. This event comes at an important time in response to The Equality and Human Rights Commission publication of new guidance ‘Freedom of expression: a guide for higher education providers and students’ unions in England and Wales’ which was published in February 2019. Delegates will have the opportunity to discuss topical issues surrounding free speech regulations, guidelines and policies with key bodies from across the Higher Education sector. Moreover, delegates will learn about how best to ensure freedom of speech is upheld without compromising or undermining alternative statutory obligations around protecting students from violence, intimidation, discrimination, harassment and radicalisation.


This Forum is specifically designed for the Higher Education sector. Typical job titles will include:

  • Pro-Vice Chancellors
  • Deputy Vice Chancellors
  • Directors of Student Wellbeing
  • Student Union Presidents and Vice Presidents
  • Event Managers
  • University Secretaries
  • Senior Lecturers
  • Departmental Heads
  • Compliance Officers
  • Student Liaison Managers
  • Chief Operating Officers
  • Student Service Directors

This Forum is also open to Central Government and the Private Sector to encourage networking and debate.

Key Speakers Confirmed:
  • Michelle Russell, Director of Investigations, Monitoring and Enforcement, Charity Commission
  • David Isaac CBE, Chair, Equality and Human Rights Commission
  • Jeremy Lefroy MP, Member, Joint Committee on Human Rights
  • Stephanie Harris, Policy Analyst, Universities UK
  • Jodie Ginsberg, CEO, Index on Censorship
View the agenda and additional speakers


Registration, Refreshments and Networking


Chair's Welcome Address

Jonathan Grant, Director – The Policy Institute and Vice-Principal (Service), Kings College London (CONFIRMED)


Morning Keynote: Assessing and Overcoming Threats to Free Speech on University Campuses

  • Detailing the core findings from the committee’s March 2018 report into Freedom of Speech in Universities
  • Highlighting how the HE sector can improve its policies and procedures to better protect freedom of speech and engender an institutional environment of openness, discussion and debate
  • Understanding how “no platforming” and “safe-space” policies are often used to stifle debate and promote a culture of intolerance and censorship
  • Urging the Charity Commission to make its guidance on free speech policies less complicated, cautious and unduly restrictive
  • Examining how best to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy and regulatory complexity that can act as a burden on those organising events
  • Outlining the way forward with regards to protecting free speech at universities and ensuring open debate and discussion can flourish throughout higher education

Jeremy Lefroy MP, Member, Joint Committee on Human Rights (CONFIRMED)


Special Keynote: Discussing New Guidance for Higher Education Institutions on Freedom of Expression

  • Exploring the key themes of new guidance published in February 2019 by the Equality and Human Rights Commission entitled Freedom of expression: a guide for higher education providers and students’ unions in England and Wales
  • Sharing practical advice for higher education institutions on how to protect freedom of speech on campus and encourage balanced and respectful debate
  • Outlining what the law says on freedom of speech, including relevant legal requirements, laws and possible legal issues for higher education providers and students’ unions
  • Helping students clearly understand what they should expect from their institutions when it comes to freedom of expression and speech
  • Understanding how to create a free speech code that sets out policies and procedures that do not create unnecessary barriers to free speech

David Isaac CBE, Chair, Equality and Human Rights Commission (CONFIRMED)


Special Keynote: Exploring the Role of Student Unions in Facilitating and Promoting Free Speech

  • Responding to the Joint Committee on Human Rights report on Freedom of Speech in Universities
  • Reasserting the Commission’s commitment to the free exchange of views and the hosting of speakers with a range of perspectives, including those who might be controversial
  • Highlighting the importance of clear and robust free speech policies in enabling Student Unions to effectively pursue their educational charitable purposes
  • Providing appropriate guidance on free speech for Student Unions, particularly around managing activities or events on campus that may present higher risks in order to support them to go ahead
  • Ensuring Student Union trustees uphold free speech within the relevant legal parameters, safeguarding against activities that are illegal or in breach of equality or human rights law

Michelle Russell, Director of Investigations, Monitoring and Enforcement, Charity Commission (CONFIRMED)


Questions and Answers Session


Refreshments and Networking


Panel Session: Creating Effective, Balanced and Transparent Free Speech Policies

  • Exploring the critical elements of a robust free speech code in terms of format, content and processes
  • Maximising accessibility, transparency and clarity of free speech codes
  • Developing relationships between universities and their student unions to ensure cooperation on free speech policies
  • Ensuring all relevant stakeholders are engaged in the process of creating and monitoring free speech policies
  • Making clear the remit of free speech codes
  • Avoiding policies which place undue burdens on invited speakers which might discourage them from attending events

Delegates will be able to submit live questions and discussion points to panellists on the day via the Sli.do mobile application 

Joy Elliott-Bowman, Director of Policy & Development, Independent Higher Education (CONFIRMED)

Anna Dodridge, Community Engagement Director, King’s College London Students’ Union (CONFIRMED)

Dr Paula Harrison-Woods, Director of Student Administration and Support, University of Liverpool (CONFIRMED)


Case Study: Effectively Managing Events with Controversial Speakers to Uphold Free Speech

  • Sharing strategies around mitigating risks and ensuring public safety during the running of events hosting controversial speakers
  • Discussing the implications of Prevent on planning and running events whilst upholding free speech policies
  • Outlining principles and practical steps to follow when determining if an event with a controversial speaker should proceed
  • Preserving robust and relatively unrestricted debate whilst appropriately safeguarding the interest of those who may disagree or feel offended by the views of those speaking

Dr Jon Sharp, Director of Student Services, University of East Anglia (CONFIRMED)


Questions and Answers Session


Lunch and Networking


Afternoon Keynote: Effectively Balancing Freedom of Speech with Other Duties

  • Developing guidance to helping universities strike the right balance between respecting their legal duty to protect free speech, and ensuring speech is lawful, compliant with equalities legislation and properly safeguards students
  • Working in tandem with the Department for Education and other HE regulatory bodies to ensure all universities are sufficiently equipped to deal with issues around protecting free speech, whilst effectively managing their other duties
  • Understanding that freedom of speech on university campuses also includes the right to protest; ensuring protests, when they occur, are well managed by events teams and robust systems are in place to uphold student and staff safety and wellbeing
  • Encouraging the OfS to work constructively with the sector to understand effective and proportionate monitoring, and to achieve greater consistency and clarity of institutional polices

Stephanie Harris, Policy Analyst, Universities UK (CONFIRMED)


Special Keynote: Articulating a Vision for the Future of Free Speech in Higher Education

  • Reporting on the Index on Censorship’s 2018 report: Uncomfortable, but educational: Freedom of expression in UK universities
  • Advocating for universities to strengthen and simplify their codes of practice on freedom of expression to make clear their responsibilities and commitment to protecting free speech on campus
  • Highlighting examples of best practice as it pertains to the protection of freedom of speech on campus
  • Urging Student Unions to reaffirm their commitment to freedom of speech, including by removing “no-platforming” policies which outlaw organisations not proscribed by Government
  • Evaluating the effectiveness and appropriateness of the OfS’s power to fine universities for non-compliance with freedom of expression regulations
  • Encouraging an independent review of the Prevent duty on HEIs, specifically the way it is being trained, understood and implemented, and implications for protecting and promoting free speech

Jodie Ginsberg, CEO, Index on Censorship (CONFIRMED)


Case Study: Examining Student Views and Approaches to Free Speech on Campus

  • Presenting an overview of empirical evidence collected over three years on issues of free speech in HE (AHRC funded project 2015-2018)
  • Evaluating student perspectives around the role of safe spaces, “no-platforming” and controversial speakers
  • Understanding student perceptions of Prevent and the Charity Commission in relation to the regulation of freedom of expression on campus
  • Detailing student suggestions for improving the current situation relating to free speech
  • Discussing staff understandings of the free speech situation as it stands and exploring the role of university staff in upholding free speech duties
  • Exploring the problem of “self-censorship” with reference to Muslim students at university, and the role of Prevent and the Charity Commission in this

Dr Alison Scott-Baumann, Professor of Society and Belief, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) (CONFIRMED)


Questions and Answers Session


Chair's Summary and Close

*Programme subject to change


In February 2019 The Equality and Human Rights Commission published new guidance for all institutions and student unions entitled: ‘Freedom of expression: a guide for higher education providers and students’ unions in England and Wales’. The aim of this new guidance is to protect lawful free speech and empower students and universities to ensure campuses remain an open forum. This guidance was published in response to multiple reports and reviews of free speech policies in higher education institutions which are outlined below. This new guidance is the first time legal rights and obligations surrounding free speech have been defined so clearly and will hopefully provide greater clarity for upholding free speech policies.

In March 2018, the Joint Committee on Human Rights conducted a report into the state of free speech in higher education institutions. Amongst other findings, the report concluded that there were a number of factors that risked undermining the principle of freedom of speech, including intimidatory behaviour by protestors, cumbersome bureaucracy imposed on event organisers, confusion over the Prevent duties, complicated guidance from the Charity Commission, and unnecessary regulatory complexity. The committee also flagged up “safe spaces” and “no-platforming” as problematic in the effort to uphold free speech across higher education. According to a 2017 survey by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), 76% of students expressed some support for no-platforming policies, while 60% felt that universities should never limit free speech. This exemplifies the confusion over how best to protect and promote free speech without breaking the law or compromising the safety and security of students.

In May 2018, Universities Minister Sam Gyimah called on higher education leaders to work together to create a unified set of guidelines to regulate free speech, commenting that the current situation is marked by a “dizzying variety of rules” which allows many universities and Student Unions to block discussion of controversial topics or unfashionable views. In an effort to remedy the situation, Mr Gymiah held a “free speech summit” with key sector partners in order to clarify the existing legal duties around free speech and develop new guidelines setting out core principles and expectations for higher education providers.

Furthermore, HEPI published a report in July 2018 entitled Cracking the code: A practical guide for university free speech policies, which highlighted loopholes in universities’ codes of conduct regarding free speech, and outlined practical advice on how the sector can act to improve protections of free speech on campus. Indeed, the Office for Student’s (OfS) regulatory framework includes a legal requirement for universities to have in place “robust and effective management and governance arrangements” to protect and promote freedom of speech, with powers to name, shame and fine institutions which fail in this statutory obligation.

However, universities must balance their free speech obligations with their statutory Prevent duties under the 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act. In September 2018, the OfS published its updated Prevent Duty: Framework for Monitoring, which adopts a revised risk-based approach to monitoring radicalisation in HE. This has to be undertaken alongside the safeguarding of free speech and expression, ensuring that any tensions between the two duties are minimised, without compromising the integrity of either.

In such a complex regulatory landscape, it is imperative that higher education institutions make a concerted effort to ensure that students, academics and invited speakers are afforded the ability to speak as freely as the law permits, whilst also strictly observing their Prevent duties. This will involve the cooperative development of a newly unified, clear, and holistic set of free speech guidelines which strikes the appropriate balance between free expression and protection from harm or radicalisation.

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