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Is free-speech under threat in UK universities?

Newly appointed university free-speech tsar Arif Ahmed certainly thinks so. 

Conversations around free-speech, particularly in our education systems, can often feel like a minefield.

The growing concern around ‘culture wars’ and ‘cancel culture’ in recent years has only exacerbated this fact, with many expressing fears of academic freedom in UK universities.

Government figures have shared beliefs that many figures in higher education, whether students, teachers, or other members of staff, are being silenced on charged topics like Brexit, pronouns, colonialism, or abortion.

An increasingly polarised political landscape has only heightened this narrative.

Enter Arif Ahmed, a newly appointed university free speech tsar, who aims to tackle the issue head-on.

A former philosophy professor at Cambridge University, Ahmed hopes his new role will protect students’ rights to free speech within academic contexts, whilst – crucially – maintaining political neutrality.

‘This is not about culture wars, or anything like that. We have no interest in culture wars,’ Ahmed said.

‘There’s absolutely no question whatever of us proposing a particular political point of view about […] what’s taught, said, researched, questioned by students or academics in universities’.

This neutral stance is honourable, but how viable will it be in practice?

Ahmed has said his first port of call within the role is to launch a new complaints procedure, allowing individuals to complain to the Office for Students (OfS) if they feel their rights to free expression have been violated on campus. The system is due to launch next year, and is currently under consultation.

There are ‘widespread concerns that many in higher education are being silenced, either by the inactivity of the university of by its inactivity,’ Ahmed said this week.

His hiring may be somewhat bemusing for those who’ve been following the conversation on academic free speech.

In a survey by the OfS this past August, it was in fact found that almost nine in ten students in England felt free to express their views. The government-back study thus contrasted claims of widespread ‘cancel culture’ on campuses.

The University of Oxford, Buckinghamshire New University, and the University of West London were among institutions where more than 90% of students felt free to express themselves.

This countered the narrative promoted by some MPs that campuses had ‘become hotbeds of censure’.

Regardless, it seems Ahmed is intent on ‘liberating’ students from alleged academic censorship.

His hiring correlates with new legal infrastructures designed to ‘protect’ students’ freedom, with a new law – passed earlier in the year – stating universities have a duty to ‘secure’ and ‘promote the importance of’ freedom of speech and academic expression.

So the question remains, are such comprehensive measures really necessary?

The decline in academic freedom is a multifaceted issue, influenced by political pressures, cultural sensitivities, and increased public scrutiny. But perhaps this scrutiny isn’t as significant as certain political figures and media narratives would have us believe.

Given students themselves feel – on the most-part – free to express their views on campus, perhaps academic freedom isn’t as endangered as Ahmed implies. After all, isn’t the view of students the only view that really matters in this instance?

Is, therefore, Professor Ahmed’s role a necessary safeguard against potential future constraints, or simply a response to a perceived threat that may not be as pervasive as feared?

Perhaps it’s a question we’re still unable to answer. But regardless,  the resilience of individuals like Professor Arif Ahmed offers a lens through which to consider the delicate balance between protecting intellectual freedom and recognizing the evolving dynamics of expression on university campuses.