Free speech tsar issues warning to universities about overseas arrangements

Universities in England could be told to terminate their arrangements with foreign countries if freedom of speech and academic freedom is undermined, the Government’s free speech tsar has said.

Professor Arif Ahmed, director for freedom of speech and academic freedom at the Office for Students (OfS), said many universities and colleges in England have “international arrangements” – including admitting overseas students on scholarships and hosting institutes partly funded by foreign governments.

The watchdog believes there is a “possibility of concerns relating to freedom of speech” in these relationships, Prof Ahmed said.

His comments came as the higher education regulator launched a consultation on guidance about freedom of speech, ahead of universities, colleges and student unions taking on new free speech duties.

The guidance includes examples to illustrate what higher education institutions may have to do to fulfil their new duties – due to come into effect in August – to secure freedom of speech within the law.

In a briefing with the media, Prof Ahmed said the watchdog could receive complaints from students, academics or visiting speakers about a university’s arrangement with a foreign country or institution.

He said: “For instance, if it means that there are people who are employed by an institute who are preventing legitimate protests or shutting down lecturers from covering certain kinds of content regarding that country for instance, or that country’s foreign policy.

“If that behaviour amounts to a restriction of freedom of speech within the law, and someone brings a complaint to us, then we may find that the complaint is justified and then we make recommendations.”

Prof Ahmed said the watchdog could call on the university to “terminate” or “rewrite” their arrangement with the foreign country.

He added: “If there are problems, universities will have to do everything they can to act compatibly with their freedom-of-speech duties.

“Insofar as that means a rethinking of their relationship with other countries, obviously that’s something that would be a good idea for them to start thinking about now.”

His comments come after a report by Parliament’s spy agency watchdog in July last year raised concerns about Chinese influence in UK universities.

The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) warned that Beijing uses Confucius Institutes to control the narrative around China and to steal academic research.

When asked whether there are fears that universities are putting the financial benefits of international students over preserving free speech for academics and students, Prof Ahmed said the OfS will look at individual cases as they come in and decide whether a priority was right or wrong.

He added: “If we find a case where, for instance, a university thinks because it’s financially expedient that it can breach its free speech duties and it doesn’t have to take practical steps to secure freedom of speech, or it thinks that it can compromise on those things simply because it’s financially expedient, that could very well be a case where they are in fact breaching their duties and we might find against them if a complaint comes to us.”

In England, university tuition fees for domestic undergraduate students have been frozen at £9,250 a year since 2017.

Leaders in the higher education sector have previously suggested that universities may need to recruit more international students – which are charged much higher fees – if undergraduate tuition fees remain frozen.

Prof Ahmed said: “We would have concerns if we think that universities and colleges are over-reliant on international students to the extent that they don’t have plans in place to cope with a situation where, for instance, there might be a sudden fluctuation in the number of international students.”

His comments come after the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill became law in May last year.

It will require universities, colleges and student unions in England to take steps to ensure lawful freedom of speech on campus.

This does not include unlawful speech, such as harassing others or inciting violence or terrorism.

In December, the OfS launched a consultation on its complaints scheme for students, staff and visiting speakers with concerns about restrictions on their lawful free speech, which will be available in August.

The watchdog also consulted on its approach to monitoring student unions on free speech matters.

On the latest consultation on guidance, which was published on Tuesday, Prof Ahmed said: “While we will judge each case on its facts and with an open mind, this guidance is designed to help universities, colleges and students’ unions navigate their new free speech duties.”

He added that the guidance gives universities the opportunity to consider their current policies, procedures and practices, and “to take all the additional steps that they must take to secure this most fundamental of rights”.

A spokesperson for Universities UK (UUK) said: “This is an extraordinarily complex issue in an already complicated landscape, and it is essential that any decisions made on the basis of this consultation are considered and proportionate.

“Freedom of speech and academic freedom sit at the heart of universities’ purpose, and the sector take their commitments and responsibility to protect and promote them extremely seriously.

“We will take time to consider today’s announcement, and look forward to both feeding into the consultation, and working with the OfS more broadly in this space.”

A spokesperson for the Russell Group, which includes some of the most prestigious and research-intensive UK institutions, said: “Whilst we will need to look carefully at the detail in here, our initial assessment is that there are areas which could have unintended consequences.

“For example, international students are a hugely valuable part of our campus communities and whilst some receive scholarships funded by their home nation to attend university in the UK, this does not mean those individuals necessarily share or represent the views and political position of their home state.

“It’s important these students aren’t discriminated against based on the views or actions of their government.”

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