England’s university free speech tsar says role is not to conduct ‘culture wars’ | Higher education

England’s newly appointed university free speech tsar says his role is not to conduct “culture wars” and has pledged to be politically neutral in his efforts to combat threats to academic freedom.

Arif Ahmed, a former philosophy professor at Cambridge University, said he would measure his success or failure by surveys of students and by the number of complaints made under procedures being created by the Office for Students (OfS), England’s higher education regulator.

“This is not about culture wars, or anything like that. We have no interest in culture wars. We have no interest in this or that particular topic,” Ahmed said.

“There’s absolutely no question whatever of us proposing a particular political point of view about what universities do, what’s taught, said, researched, questioned by students, staff or academics in universities. We have zero interest in that.

“Free speech is too important to take any one political side. What we’re concerned with is making sure universities are places where these debates can be conducted in a vigorous and free way.”

The legislation that created Ahmed’s role as the OfS’s director for freedom of speech and academic freedom also imposes a duty on English universities to take “reasonable steps” to promote free speech, or face sanctions by the regulator including possible fines.

Ahmed said his first step was to create a complaints procedure to launch in August next year, allowing individuals to complain to the OfS if they feel their rights to free expression have been violated on campus.

In a speech on Monday, Ahmed is to say there are “widespread concerns that many in higher education are being silenced, either by the activity of the university or by its inactivity”, but he will stress that he plans to take a “ broadly viewpoint neutral approach” towards complaints.

“It makes no difference at all what side you take on statues or pronouns or colonialism, or abortion or animal rights, or Ulez. You can castigate the monarchy or defend it. You can argue that Britain is fundamentally racist or that it never was. 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,” Ahmed will tell his audience.

Asked if he had any personal experience of such issues, Ahmed said he did not want to comment on specific cases but said as an academic he had felt unable to express his views during tutorials or seminars.

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“There are threats to free speech and academic freedom, they are a threat to higher education in England and across the world. We do have evidence of this,” Ahmed said.

Ahmed pointed to the most recent national student survey, which found that 86% of students in England said they felt very or fairly free to express their ideas, opinions and beliefs during their studies. Only 3% said they felt “not at all free”, with the remaining 11% saying they felt “not very free” to do so.

“It seems that one in seven are not free to express their own views, according to the survey. That is a matter of concern for us, because it means essentially that one in seven students is not free,” Ahmed said.

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