University free speech at risk if education Bill weakened, warns professor

Prof Arif Ahmed - Eddie Mulholland
Prof Arif Ahmed - Eddie Mulholland

A Cambridge professor who defied student censors to host a debate with a gender-critical feminist has warned that universities will be less likely to uphold freedom of speech rights under plans to water down new powers for academics and students.

Prof Arif Ahmed, a philosophy professor who has taken a stand against “cancel culture” on campus, has joined cancelled academics in protesting against the Government’s concessions to universities over a new free-speech law.

He said: “Free speech like any right is meaningless without credible enforcement.”

The Telegraph revealed on Thursday that the Government has tabled amendments to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill that would mean academics and students would only be able to use new powers to sue universities for breaching their speech rights as a last resort. They would first have to go through a complaints process with their universities and the sector regulator, which they fear would take years. Complainants would also have to show they had suffered a loss.

Backlash from vice-chancellors

The Government’s concessions over the statutory tort in Clause 4 of the Bill were made following a backlash from vice-chancellors and members of the House of Lords, who fear the new powers to sue universities would create “unnecessary additional costs”.

It is understood that ministers hope the amendments will stop members of the Lords from rejecting the tort entirely so that they can get the legislation passed before the next election. They do not want a new director for freedom of speech and academic freedom in the Office for Students, which would be created via the legislation, to be selected under a possible Labour government.

However, campaigners fear that the amendments will make the powers toothless. Prof Ahmed said: “The regulator by itself cannot always compel universities to uphold free-speech rights. The courts can. They can also compel disclosure. They can also issue injunctions: without Clause 4, there is a risk that silencing and no-platforming will stand whilst investigations drag on. I fear that weakening Clause 4 will weaken the incentives for institutions to uphold the academic freedoms without which they do not deserve to be called universities.”

‘Insulting and hateful’

Prof Ahmed faced a backlash from students after inviting Helen Joyce, a gender-critical feminist, to speak at Gonville and Caius College in October. Prof Pippa Rogerson, the college’s master, wrote to students saying she was boycotting the “insulting and hateful” speaker.

Ms Joyce told The Telegraph that universities “find it too easy to ignore their obligations” on freedom of speech. She said she would not support any changes to legislation to make it easier for them to continue to ignore those duties.

The Government has rejected suggestions that it is watering down freedom of speech powers in the Bill.

A spokesman said on Thursday: “All the core provisions of the Bill remain as they have always been, to strengthen protections for freedom of speech in higher education. It was always our intention that the tort would be used as a last resort.”

The spokesman added: “The Office for Students will be able to impose sanctions, including fines, on any university that fails in its duty to protect their students, staff and visiting speakers.

“Should individuals wish to seek further action after exploring other available routes, they can still bring a claim to the courts.”