The Government must legislate to ensure freedom of speech is protected in university students’ unions, a leading think tank has said.
A report by the influential Policy Exchange said Parliament needed to make current legislation clearer and more robust, and impress upon universities and colleges their duty to ensure academic freedom and freedom of speech.
In recent years, students’ unions in England have denied pro-life and Christian student groups access to funding, and facilities such as stalls at freshers’ fairs.
The report called for a new Director for Academic Freedom at the Office for Students to promote “tolerance for viewpoint diversity” in universities and students’ unions.
The role would encourage compliance and investigate possible breaches.
It added that guidance should be updated to ensure students’ unions fulfil their “freedom of speech duties” and universities and colleges had to be willing to support events in the face of “intimidation” and “threats”.
Policy Exchange has called for the Government to provide ‘examples of sanctions’ that universities and colleges can apply to non-complying students’ unions.
It stated that universities and colleges “would be expected” to impose such fines against “individual members of the University and those groups that fail to uphold” freedom of speech, including “fines for Student Unions who discriminate on grounds of viewpoint.”
Where a Student Union denies a student group access to services, the report says there should be a process to appeal.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson indicated in February that the Government is ready to defend students’ rights to freedom of speech.
Writing in The Times, he said: “If universities don’t take action, the government will. If necessary, I’ll look at changing the underpinning legal framework, perhaps to clarify the duties of students’ unions or strengthen free speech rights.
“I don’t take such changes lightly, but I believe we have a responsibility to do whatever necessary to defend this right.”
In 2017, Balliol College of Oxford University banned the Christian Union from its Freshers’ Fair, because Christianity was labelled as “an excuse for homophobia and certain forms of neo-colonialism”.
Organiser Freddy Potts claimed that the presence of CU members would be “alienating” for students and constituted a “microaggression”, but a backlash from Balliol students forced the organising committee to back down.