Thank you for contacting me about freedom of speech at universities.
Our universities have a proud history of encouraging freedom of speech and it is vitally important that this right is preserved. I welcome that the Prime Minister has said our universities should not be just be places of learning, but should also be placed where there can be open debate.
I am encouraged that the Minister for Universities has been clear that universities have a legal duty to secure freedom of speech for students, staff and visiting speakers and must have clear policies in place to support this practice. This duty extends to both the premises of the university and premises occupied by the students' unions, even if they are not part of the university premises. This means that universities have a legal obligation to ensure the use of student union premises is not denied to individuals on the grounds or their beliefs, policy or objectives. Universities must also follow the statutory Prevent duty surrounding terrorist and extremist groups.
Universities also have a responsibility under of the Equality Act 2010 to provide a safe and inclusive environment for all staff and students. This helps ensure that all individuals are able to express their opinions without fear of discrimination, or harassment by the university.
The Department for Education provides additional support to universities to ensure that ideas and opinions can be heard, challenged and debated - including help to assess the possible risks around external speakers. I have been assured that it also proposes to raise the issue of freedom of speech as part of the consultation on the public interest principles to be included in the public interest governance condition that the Office for Students will be able to improve on higher education institutions.
Freedom of speech is vital in society, and in particular in higher education. It is essential for academic thinking to remain cutting-edge and for ideas to be explored and challenged. I am encouraged that procedures are in place to uphold this right.
Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.
Updated: October 2017