Universities could ‘terminate’ deals with foreign countries who undermine free speech

Professor Arif Ahmed, the Government's free speech tsar, said there are concerns relating to foreign countries and universities
Professor Arif Ahmed, the Government’s free speech tsar, said there are concerns relating to foreign countries and universities
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The government’s free speech tsar has declared that universities in England should do “everything they can” to make sure their partnerships with other nations do not compromise freedom of speech.

If those partnerships are impeding legitimate discussion, they may be instructed to end such arrangements, which include accepting overseas students on scholarships and hosting institutes partially supported by foreign governments.

The Office for Students (OfS), according to Professor Arif Ahmed, director of academic freedom and free speech, feels that there may be “possibilities of concerns relating to freedom of speech” in these partnerships.

He made the comments as the higher education regulator launched a consultation on guidance about freedom of speech, ahead of universities, colleges and student unions taking on new free speech duties.

The guidance includes examples to illustrate what higher education institutions may have to do to fulfil their new duties – due to come into effect in August – to secure freedom of speech within the law.

In a briefing with the media, Prof Ahmed said the watchdog could receive complaints from students, academics or visiting speakers about a university’s arrangement with a foreign country or institution.

He said: “For instance, if it means that there are people who are employed by an institute who are preventing legitimate protests or shutting down lecturers from covering certain kinds of content regarding that country for instance, or that country’s foreign policy.

“Or [they] were complaining about it if a university, for instance, is restricting that kind of activity because it’s concerned about its relationships with a foreign country.
“If that behaviour amounts to a restriction of freedom of speech within the law, and someone brings a complaint to us, then we may find that the complaint is justified and then we make recommendations.”

Prof Ahmed said the watchdog could call on the university to “terminate” or “rewrite” their arrangement with the foreign country.

He added: “If there are problems, universities will have to do everything they can to act compatibly with their freedom of speech duties.

“Insofar as that means a rethinking of their relationship with other countries, obviously that’s something that would be a good idea for them to start thinking about now.”

His comments also come after a report by Parliament’s spy agency watchdog in July last year raised concerns about Chinese influence in UK universities.

When asked whether there are fears that universities are putting the financial benefits of international students over preserving free speech for academics and students, Prof Ahmed said that the OfS will assess individual cases.

He added: “If we find a case where, for instance, a university thinks because it’s financially expedient that it can breach its free speech duties and it doesn’t have to take practical steps to secure freedom of speech, or it thinks that it can compromise on those things simply because it’s financially expedient, that could very well be a case where they are in fact breaching their duties and we might find against them if a complaint comes to us.”

In England, university tuition fees for domestic undergraduate students have been frozen at £9,250 a year since 2017.

Leaders in the higher education sector have previously suggested universities may need to recruit more international students – which are charged much higher fees – if undergraduate tuition fees remain frozen.

Prof Ahmed said: “We would have concerns if we think that universities and colleges are over-reliant on international students to the extent that they don’t have plans in place to cope with a situation where, for instance, there might be a sudden fluctuation in the number of international students.”

His comments come after the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill became law in May last year.

It will require universities, colleges and student unions in England to take steps to ensure lawful freedom of speech on campus.

This does not include unlawful speech, such as harassing others or inciting violence or terrorism.

In December, the OfS launched a consultation on its complaints scheme for students, staff and visiting speakers with concerns about restrictions on their lawful free speech, which will be available in August.

The watchdog also consulted on its approach to monitoring student unions on free speech matters.

On the latest consultation on guidance, which was published on Tuesday, Prof Ahmed said: “While we will judge each case on its facts and with an open mind, this guidance is designed to help universities, colleges and students’ unions navigate their new free speech duties.”

He added that the guidance gives universities the opportunity to consider their current policies, procedures and practices, and “to take all the additional steps that they must take to secure this most fundamental of rights”.


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Dulal Ahmed Chowdhury is the Editor of The Daily Dazzling Dawn. Previously, he has been serving in important positions in all the famous national dailies of the Bangladesh since the nineties. He has played a commendable role in journalism by participating in various events at the national and international levels. United Nations Conference, World Climate Conference, SAARC Summit are notable among them.

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