THE governments new free-speech champion, Prof Arif Ahmed, said that universities face urgent threats to free speech and academic freedom, reported The Times.
Ahmed, a professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge, was recently appointed as the first director for freedom of speech and academic freedom at the Office for Students (OfS).
Ahmed has been professor of Philosophy since 2022 and a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College since 2015.
He will have responsibility for investigating breaches of the Freedom of Speech Act.
Ahmed promised to utilise his new position to advocate for all views, adding that his objective is not to engage in any cultural conflict or endorse the government’s views.
The role was announced by the Department for Education (DfE) in 2021 as part of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) bill.
The bill, which became law on May 11, also includes a new complaints scheme which could result in sanctions for universities that do not uphold freedom of speech within the law.
According to Ahmed, failures could involve actions like no-platforming external speakers, implementing ‘ideological’ bias training for staff and students, and disciplining lecturers based on their social media activity.
The bill proposed by the Department for Education (DfE) may also impact universities that utilise non-disclosure agreements against individuals who report instances of bullying or abuse.
The specific details of the complaints scheme are still being finalised, and the government is in the process of developing regulations to implement the bill. Once enacted, the Office for Students (OfS), an independent regulator of higher education in England, is expected to oversee the administration of the bill. Ahmed will join the board of the OfS as a member.
Susan Lapworth, the chief executive of OfS, said that the preservation of freedom of speech and academic freedom is crucial for the foundation of higher education in England. The appointment of Arif will ensure that these principles are vigorously protected, she added.
Claire Coutinho, the children’s, families and wellbeing minister, told The Times, “Ensuring fear does not undermine the rights of students and academics to debate controversial ideas and securing the right to an open exchange of ideas in universities.”
Toby Young, founder of the Free Speech Union, which advocates for freedom of expression, has welcomed Ahmed’s appointment.
“I’m particularly pleased the new free speech tsar is, broadly speaking, a man of the left. Woke activists on campus need to realise it’s in their interests to defend free speech, not just male, pale and stale conservatives,” Young said.
According to Dr. Jo Grady, general secretary of the Universities and Colleges Union, which represents lecturers and staff, the primary concern for academic freedom arises from the growing reliance on casual staff who may not have the liberty to pursue research.
“There are serious threats to freedom of speech and academic freedom on campus, but they come from widespread precarious employment practices which strip academics of the ability to speak and research freely. It’s clear to anyone paying attention to this government . . . it has no interest in protecting civil liberties,” she was quoted as saying by The Times.
A spokeswoman for Universities UK said the sector would welcome Ahmed’s appointment as universities take their responsibility to protect and promote both free speech and academic freedom seriously.