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Academic Freedom in Our Universities: the Best and the Worst

Civitas research team, December 2020

This report analyses over three years of campus censorship (January 2017–August 2020), examining the multiple policies and actions of all the 137 registered UK universities – including their students’ unions – to provide a detailed understanding of the state of free speech across UK academia.

This study employs a unique approach, methodology and data to measure restrictions on free speech. We would like to acknowledge previous studies on the separate Free Speech University Rankings by online magazine Spiked over four years (2015-2018) along with all its team who deserve clear credit for the UK’s first annual nationwide analysis of campus censorship.

In all cases, our policy analysis of each university is summarised by assessing 22 variables and providing a censorship score. For a better understanding, each score is then provided with a category. This new study has found:

  • MOST RESTRICTIVE: 48 of the universities (35%) – including the three highest ranked UK universities – are performing badly on free speech and the government should resolve the issues by a change of policy and legislation.
  • MODERATELY RESTRICTIVE: 70 of the universities (51%) are not performing as well as they should and the Office for Students (OfS) should direct the university on how it could improve.
  • MOST FRIENDLY: 19 of the universities (14%) have permitted some restrictions to free speech in its actions and regular policies but not at the level which might warrant external intervention.

In all cases, our policy analysis of each university is summarised by assessing 22 variables, including: controversies surrounding free speech censorship on or near campus; external pressure group involvement and university society groups in curbing free speech; the restrictive nature of the Policy on Free Speech on free speech itself; extreme curbs on free speech listed in harassment policies; through to the number of offensive ‘speech acts’ listed in student and staff Codes of Conduct.

The number of restrictions imposed by specific university actions and policies are collated and aggregated into an overall censorship score for each university.

When looking at all universities across the UK, we find overall:

  • CONTROVERSIES: 93 of all 137 (68%) university institutions experienced a controversy relating to censorship of free speech.
  • Of the ‘Russell Group’ of world-class universities, a concerning 42% were recorded overall as receiving the MOST RESTRICTIVE censorship score; over half (54%) came in with a MODERATELY RESTRICTIVE censorship score, while just one registered as MOST FRIENDLY.
  • ALLEGED ‘TRANSPHOBIA’ AND FREE SPEECH: Over half (53%) of all 137 universities experienced alleged ‘transphobic’ episodes that led to demands for censoring speech.
  • EXTERNAL PRESSURE GROUPS: Just under a quarter (23%) of all universities experienced episodes that led to demands for censoring speech due to the intervention of external pressure groups. Similarly, just under a quarter (24%) of the universities experienced episodes of free speech restrictions due to the intervention of their own university societies.
  • CANCEL CULTURE: Over half (55%) of all universities experienced a ‘cancel culture’ of open letters or petitions which pushed for the restriction of views of staff, students or visiting speakers on campus.
  • SOCIAL MEDIA: 50 of the 137 universities (37%) experienced incidents that led to demands for censorship of speech or written material due to social media activism.
  • FREE SPEECH CURBED BY FREE SPEECH POLICIES: 98 of the 137 universities (72%) have taken steps to introduce a documented policy on free speech/expression that has itself imposed a restrictive set of conditions on free speech. Overall, 45 universities had policies which placed 10 or more levels of restrictions on free speech in their own free speech document. This included a perceived offense or insult based on age or gender identity and, for example, sets out the right to debar speakers/ organisations where it believes that their presence on campus is ‘not conducive to good order’ or might ‘offend the principles of scholarly inquiry’.
  • HARASSMENT POLICIES PLACE HIGH LEVELS OF RESTRICTIONS ON FREE SPEECH: 89% of universities have a policy on bullying and harassment in which speech can be curbed, for example, by claims to personal offence, unwanted conduct, or conduct which is reported as ‘insulting’, even in cases where it would ‘undermine’ an individual or create an ’offensive environment’. Harassment policies in universities can stifle students in their discourse, including through the perceived ‘intrusive questioning’ of a person’s life, insulting jokes, patronising language, or unwanted conduct or perceived offensive environments. Overall, 68 universities (50%) had harassment policies placing over 100 levels of practical restrictions on free speech.
  • EQUAL OPPORTUNITIES POLICIES: 81% of universities adopt an ‘Equal Opportunities policy’ that limits individual expression.
  • CODES OF CONDUCT: 93% of universities list a series of unacceptable speech acts in their student and staff Code of Conduct. Overall, 83 of the 137 universities (64%) had Codes of Conduct placing over 30 levels of practical restrictions on free speech.
  • TRANSGENDER POLICY: 58% of universities have a policy for transgender persons defining the terms for referencing transgender persons – while it was found that some 31% had bullying and harassment policies defining gender offensive speech.
  • EXTERNAL SPEAKER POLICIES: Over 50 institutions now host a University External Speaker policy – in most cases, designed to prevent disinvitation or no platforming of invited speakers – which have themselves become a cause for curbing free speech.

The report finds that:

  • The high level of restrictions strongly suggest that UK universities should adopt a US-style ‘Chicago statement’ on free speech or a version of the Academics for Academic Freedom (AFAF) statement, or, if not directly reaffirm the existing free speech commitments already set out in the 1986 Education Act. All UK universities should now sign up to a written statement to protect free speech.
  • The magnitude of restrictions in policies merits further Government-level and parliamentary Select Committee investigation.

Academic Freedom in Our Universities: the Best and the Worst Data Table

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