Russell Group calls for clarity from OfS to help protect free speech

22 May 2024

The Russell Group has today (22 May) called on the OfS to help universities protect free speech by addressing ambiguity in draft guidance on new legal duties that will come into effect on 1 August.

The Russell Group’s response to the Office for Students’ consultation on proposed regulatory advice and other matters relating to freedom of speech has asked the regulator to provide universities with clearer examples of the kind of actions they might take when dealing with challenging cases where free speech rights have to be balanced with other binding legal duties under equality law and additional legislation.

The consultation submission welcomes the OfS’ commitment to a principles-based approach to the new rules and reiterates the commitment of universities to support students and staff as they debate challenging ideas, ensuring discussions and protests are always carried out within the law, and with respect and tolerance.

Other recommendations put forward by the Russell Group to the OfS include:

  • Encouraging an open and supportive dialogue that allows institutions and students’ unions the opportunity to share approaches with the OfS and seek informal advice.
  • Providing clarity on how the OfS understands free speech ‘within the law’ in the context of transnational education (TNE).
  • Providing clarification to ensure that interpretation does not undermine universities’ autonomy over course content. 
  • Allowing universities and students’ unions to make representations as part of the complaints process. 
  • A full review of the new OfS free speech complaints scheme in Spring 2025, to evaluate effectiveness and draw on early cases to build up useful precedents.

A spokesperson for the Russell Group commented:

"Free speech is a foundation of academic inquiry and university campuses are a natural place for the expression of that speech, where challenging ideas can be debated rigorously. The regulatory environment that supports the right to free speech needs to be robust and proportionate, and the processes in place need to be flexible enough to consider a broad range of factors that might determine how a university or student union takes steps to secure free speech.

"The ongoing protests taking place on university campuses across the UK are a prime example of how university leaders are facing difficult decisions, working to support the right to free speech while protecting students from unlawful harassment and intimidation.

"Clear guidance from the OfS on the new legal obligations universities have in this area is vital and addressing some of the ambiguity that is in the draft guidance will help universities get this right. With the final guidance set to be published just weeks before the new rules come into force, a full review of the new complaints scheme in 2025 will ensure the lessons from early cases can be learned and changes made where necessary."

Read more in the summary of the Russell Group position on the OfS's approach to free speech.

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