Office for Students to launch scheme to protect free speech on campus

The Office for Students (OfS) committed to protecting the free speech of students, staff and visitors as it published proposals for a new ‘free speech complaints scheme’.

The scheme will allow those whose lawful free speech has been stifled or restricted on English campuses to “seek redress for any loss they have suffered as a result”.

A statement from the OfS indicated the scheme would form “part of wider proposals to secure free speech within the law, including academic freedom, in English higher education”.

Potential fines

Under the complaints scheme, which is set to come into force in August 2024, someone can complain to the OfS “about a loss that they have suffered because a university, college, or students’ union has not taken steps to secure their free speech within the law”, though the watchdog states that the complainant should first attempt to resolve the situation with the relevant party.

The OfS also stipulates that students’ unions “will need to take steps to secure legal free speech for students, staff and visiting speakers under new legislation, and will need to maintain a code of practice to support this”.

Freedom of speech is central to a high-quality education. Arif Ahmed

The watchdog proposes to maintain a public list of the students’ unions that it will regulate and monitor, provide guidance for such unions about their legal duties, and impose fines on those which do not comply with their free speech duties.


Writing in The Times, Arif Ahmed, Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom at the OfS, said: “Freedom of speech is central to a high-quality education. That is why the Office for Students — the independent regulator of higher education in England — will not stand by when students and academics cannot speak freely.”

Speech within the law is protected. Speech outside the law is not.

He added: “It is not for the OfS to take a view on the controversial issues that are discussed on campus. We have absolutely no interest in stoking ‘culture wars’ and will be assiduously impartial in our decision-making. Speech within the law is protected. Speech outside the law is not.

“Free speech matters to us all. Where it is constrained, a student’s experience of university suffers. Exposure to views that challenge, offend or shock is fundamental to developing resilience, critical thinking and informed political engagement.

“And our global reputation for excellent research will not survive unless academics are free to challenge orthodoxy on any topic. Our free speech complaints scheme will help protect a value that is absolutely fundamental, not only to universities but to human civilisation itself.”

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