• Monday, March 04, 2024

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Free speech chief expresses ‘serious’ concern over suppression in universities

Professor Arif Ahmed said that as long as a perspective can be legally expressed, it should be allowed on campus, including opposing viewpoints

Professor Arif Ahmed – Image Credit: Office for Students (OfS)

By: Kimberly Rodrigues

The recently appointed free speech chief, professor Arif Ahmed at the Office for Students (OfS), which regulates the higher education system in England, has expressed “serious” concerns about the stifling of free speech in English universities.

He emphasised his commitment to defending all views and addressing the issue of academic freedom. Professor Ahmed noted a significant decline in the UK’s international ranking for academic freedom over the past decade.

His appointment comes in the wake of several incidents of “no-platforming,” where controversial speakers were barred from events, and protests against speakers expressing certain views, such as the demonstration outside a talk by gender-critical academic professor Kathleen Stock at the Oxford Union in May, The BBC reported.

In his first major statement since taking office, professor Ahmed underscored his commitment to defending the right to peaceful protest while drawing a clear line between peaceful and disruptive demonstrations.

He emphasised the OfS’s political neutrality in safeguarding free speech within the higher education system in England.

He said, “I think there may be areas where there is serious cause for concern – and I want to emphasise that this comes from all sides of the political spectrum.”

Professor Ahmed also acknowledged concerns about freedom of speech on campus, spanning from classroom discussions to research topics.

When addressing the topic of expressing views like Rishi Sunak’s statement, “a man is a man and a woman is a woman,” professor Ahmed said that as long as a perspective can be legally expressed, it should be allowed on campus, including opposing viewpoints.

Additionally, professor Ahmed emphasised the OfS’ impartiality in culture wars and political disputes, reaffirming their commitment to defending the free speech rights of individuals across all perspectives.

He also pointed out the decline in the UK’s rank on the Academic Freedom Index, a longstanding measure of freedom of expression.

Furthermore, he highlighted the new law enacted earlier this year, which mandates universities to uphold and promote freedom of speech and academic expression.

Non-compliant higher education providers and student unions could face penalties, including fines.

Professor Ahmed will also supervise a forthcoming complaints scheme, enabling students, staff, and visiting speakers to seek compensation for violations of university free speech obligations. This process is set to be implemented in August next year, and is presently under consultation.

In his address at Kings College London on Monday (9), professor Ahmed is expected to affirm his commitment to safeguarding individuals’ right to express opinions on topics such as Brexit, statues, pronouns, colonialism, abortion, or animal rights.

The professor clarified that speech crossing into harassment or incitement of violence is not protected by the law or freedom of speech.

“You can speak or write as a Marxist, a post-colonial theorist, a gender-critical feminist or anything else – if you do it within the law”.

Professor Ahmed is of the opinion that individuals can express views within the boundaries of the law.

He emphasises the importance of freedom of speech in allowing diverse perspectives, highlighting its fundamental role in high-quality higher education, noting that university often offers students a unique opportunity to explore various viewpoints, a privilege that might not be available elsewhere in their lives.

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