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Bottom of the pile: freedom of speech at Oxford

“Free speech is the lifeblood of a university.” So begins Oxford’s policy on freedom of speech. Followed by the tasteful poetry of triplets and metaphor, the policy explains how this fundamental right allows for the pursuit of knowledge and truth, and enables nuance and perspective to diversify debate in ways it otherwise might not have. 

This article won’t debate whether absolute freedom of speech is the pinnacle of individual and societal liberty. History reminds us what atrocities can emerge when this right is taken away whilst the modern day warns us of the tendency for hate speech to turn to violence. The answer, as always, probably lies somewhere in the middle. 

I was helping with a News article about Oxford falling to second place in The Times’ UK University ranking the other day. Thinking about how devastating this must be for the prideful Oxford student, I had a look at the results from the National Student Survey (NSS), an annual survey sent to half a million students by the Office for Students (OfS) with questions on seven topics: on-course teaching, learning opportunities, assessment and feedback, academic support, organisation and management, learning resources, and student voice.

Crucially, the survey this year included an unprecedented new question, Q27, which asked students:

“During your studies, how free did you feel to express your ideas, opinions, and beliefs?”

Its inclusion comes amid free speech rows on campuses in recent months and the passing of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act earlier this year. The Act intends to preserve and enshrine freedom of speech by imposing fines on higher education providers and student unions if there are any breaches. Sounds like a liberal dream to me. 

After some number crunching, I realised that, in response to Q27, Oxford ranked first amongst Russell Group universities* for freedom of expression whilst most others faltered on this level. 

For Q27, Oxford obtained a positivity measure of 90.8, followed closely by Imperial College London with 90.1. Essentially meaning that the vast majority (90.8%) of Oxford students felt positively about their freedom to share their views on campus. Whilst the lowest ranking Russell Group university was Manchester with just 82.5 – not so charming, man.

Although, five of the Group’s universities denied their right to express an opinion, with student unions at other campuses such as Cambridge holding boycotts against the NSS on “education marketisation” grounds which is interesting given the Higher Education Act’s ‘free speech tsar’ is coincidentally a Cambridge philosophy professor. The Oxford SU also took part in boycotts between 2017 and 2022 over concerns that the survey would be linked to the Teaching Excellence Framework and could result in higher fees for high-performing universities. Although the boycott’s historic effect is still present, it seems, in Oxford’s low response rate of 50.2%.

The survey also revealed that, of the Group members included (19 to be exact), 13 were below their individual benchmarks for free speech, with Manchester being the greatest outlier at -3.1 percentage points. Overall, the Group’s weighted average score was 85.2, just below its benchmark of 85.8, implying below satisfactory free speech protections.

Oxford’s NSS triumph may come as a shock. In a Cherwell poll (16th of September 2023), we asked our followers the same question (Q27). Of 168 respondents, 34 (20%) said that their free speech was mostly restricted while 3 (2%) said they were completely restricted. On the other hand, 81 (48%) said their free speech was mostly free and 50 (30%) were completely confident in that freedom. Using these results, the positivity score might be closer to 68.7, much lower than the NSS score.

Oxford’s role in the wider debate on free speech on campus has always been front and centre. Former Prime Minister and Oxford graduate, Boris Johnson’s 2019 manifesto included a pledge to “strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities.” 

Then in March 2020, UN Women Oxford UK’s de-platforming of former Home Secretary Amber Rudd resulted in vast criticism from JCR Presidents, de-registration as a student society, and ministers calling for strengthening the Office for Students’ powers to ensure free speech.

Later that year, the Student Union (SU) passed an ‘Academic Hate Speech’ motion condemning the “hateful material in mandatory teaching”, to which the University highlighted their free speech policy. This scuffle quite literally created laws, providing the backdrop for new regulation such as the Freedom of Speech (Higher Education) Act to be passed.

History repeats itself with Kathleen Stock’s talk at the Oxford Union (OU) last term having reignited the debate. Protests were staged against Stock, academics from both sides sent open letters, and the SU (unsuccessfully) attempted to ban the OU from the Freshers’ Fair. Like before, Oxford’s reaction to controversial speakers wasn’t contained to OX1. Instead, national papers joined the narrative prompting a country-wide conversation on free speech and even got a comment from the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak (yet another Oxford graduate…)

With all this considered it’s clear that free speech is no small nor easy topic, and its relationship with Oxford is ubiquitous. It is weaved into our tutorial system, into our societies, into our politics by our Oxford-educated prime ministers, and into our national media. Whether we think we have strong protections for free speech or that cancel culture is rife in our University, one thing is certain: we are talking about freedom of speech and we are loud.

*Russell Group members included Birmingham, Bristol, Durham, Exeter, Imperial College London, King’s College London, Leeds, Liverpool, London School of Economics and Political Sciences, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Oxford, Queen Mary University of London, Sheffield, Southampton, University College London, Warwick, York.

EXCLUDING Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Queen’s University Belfast.

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