Freedom of speech and academic freedom are hotly debated topics across Higher Education Institutions (HEI), particularly with the proposed Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill likely to be passed before the end of this parliamentary year.
Earlier this year, GoodCourse and Advance HE partnered to develop a micro-course, to help HEIs better prepare their students when it comes to understanding topics like academic freedom and free speech — in preparation for the impending bill.
In a fascinating discussion, we delve into the complexities of freedom of speech and academic freedom, examining why it’s such an important topic in Higher Education today.
What is the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill proposing?
This legislation, introduced to the UK parliament in 2021, followed concerns that some universities were suppressing academic freedom and freedom of speech on certain topics. The bill seeks to establish a new legal framework that places requirements on universities in England to actively promote and protect freedom of speech.
Amongst other things, the bill will require universities to prevent the rejection of certain speakers who might be denied a platform due to their controversial ideas, which Students’ Unions will also need to comply with.
What are academic freedom and freedom of speech?
Both academic freedom and freedom of speech are closely related concepts. Academic freedom is the right of researchers, lecturers, and those working in HE to engage in research, teaching, and learning without fear of censorship or reprisal as long as it’s for academic purposes — such as researching controversial ideas.
Freedom of speech, on the other hand, is a broader concept, referring to the rights of individuals to express opinions, beliefs, and ideas without fear of interference from the government or other forms of censorship.
Robiu says: “In the context of HE today, they are terms that some people use interchangeably, but they mean different things, which we explained in our GoodCourse micro-learning course.”
Both are important to the pursuit of knowledge and the advancement of society. However, the rights must be balanced against other considerations, such as protection against discrimination or harassment. Universities and other HEIs must engage in policies that protect these values and allow all members of HE communities to feel safe.
Why is the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill contested?
The new Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill has been the subject of passionate debate because, as with many things, there are pros and cons to it.
On the one hand, the protection of free speech must be a good thing, right? As Robiu puts it, “It gives strength to academic freedom,” which is a core value of Higher Education.
Another positive aspect is that it might spark a new form of community cohesion, encouraging better debate and allowing intellectual diversity to flourish, potentially leading to a more inclusive academic environment.
On the other hand, however, there are challenges to this bill that universities will need to consider. Robiu notes that the biggest concern raised by critics is the fear of its potential for abuse, which could actually undermine freedom of speech. It could also cause further cause harm to marginalised groups.
How can I learn more about the GoodCourse x Advance HE course?
Advance HE and GoodCourse have partnered to create a micro-learning course on academic freedom and free speech — the first of its kind in Higher Education today. The combination of Advance HE’s domain and legislative experience in the HE sector alongside GoodCourse’s engaging, student-focused approach to e-learning came together to educate and foster positive relations between potentially conflicting groups and help new students transitioning into university.
“The course’s interface was very effective. I have worked in student engagement for nearly a decade now, and think that a course like this, which prioritises engagement and relevant content, is very useful.” — Robiu Salisu
It’s not uncommon for students to face challenges when they first get to university. Difficulties can be caused by being in a new environment, feeling homesick, or adjusting to a new and demanding academic environment. Students will encounter those who make them feel a sense of belonging, but equally, they will meet people who challenge their views. It is therefore imperative that they are educated on what exactly academic freedom and freedom of speech mean.
As it remains to be seen how the bill will be implemented, its practical implications can currently only be estimated. To be prepared for any challenges it might bring, further education on these topics will be essential. GoodCourse’s micro-learning course, built in partnership with Advance HE, summarises the key points in a direct and engaging manner. To find out more, get in contact today.