Skip to main content

05 September 2023

Supporting free speech in universities needs more than just regulation, report says

More evidence is required on what actually works to protect freedom of expression


A new independent programme of work is needed to systematically test measures that could help positively support and promote freedom of speech in UK universities, according to a new report.

Published by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, the paper says that if the government is sufficiently concerned about freedom of speech in higher education to introduce new legislation and regulation, then there is a clear case for it to also invest in testing “what works” in enhancing this freedom.

The report reviews a number of measures that have been trialled around the world, but says there is currently insufficient evidence of their effectiveness.

The report cautions against viewing free speech in universities as under threat to the degree that some accounts portray, partly because the heightened focus on this issue cannot be separated from the hugely increased focus on so-called “culture wars” in the UK, which may be leading some to overestimate the extent of the problem.

However, the authors say that, on the most balanced assessment of available evidence, the issue is not as dramatic as is sometimes made out, but there are still signs of a shift where some students increasingly feel that unpopular but lawful views cannot be expressed in the classroom.

The researchers cite previous surveys they have conducted showing that 34% of undergraduate students thought free speech was under threat at their institutions in 2022 – up from 23% in 2019.

Building on and evaluating existing evidence in this area, a new body or programme could develop a clearer picture of what works to address such perceptions and enable universities to respond to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act in a coherent way.

The authors suggest that the proposed centre could be established by the Office for Students (OfS) and the recently appointed director for freedom of speech and academic freedom.

They note that while the OfS is rightly focused on compliance with regulation, a precedent exists for its role in establishing a body to test interventions and develop recommendations for best practice, given the OfS previously set up and funds the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO).

The study says that while universities can implement measures in an attempt to protect freedom of expression, only a clear theory of change that links interventions to outcomes, combined with randomised control trials to test their effect, will ultimately reveal what is effective.

The report reviews the academic literature on four types of measures that could potentially merit further research and highlights survey data which reveals between 61% and 71% of students say they support such measures, which include:

  • Classroom discussion guidelines and geography. Co-created by teachers and students, discussion guidelines can be useful in establishing norms of debate in the classroom and minimising conflict, while helping students feel more attached to their groups.
  • “Contact initiatives”. These provide opportunities for polarised groups to come together outside of the classroom to discuss divisive issues and listen to one another.
  • “Active listening training”. Better listening has been found to build trust and understanding, reducing conflict and helping people feel more at ease when expressing their opinions.
  • Codes of conduct. Required by the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act, such codes have been adopted by 99 higher education institutions in the United States and aim to promote mutual respect while allowing the expression of all ideas.

Professor Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, said:

“The Free Speech Act has focused attention on free speech in universities and put legal and regulatory responses at the centre of the discussion. But our new report shows that the debates around the act, while often technical, are far from neutral, where starting points on broader ‘culture war’ issues hugely colour assessments of the scale and nature of the problem. This means that the challenge to free speech in universities is often either overstated or too readily dismissed, when the reality is it’s not nearly as bad as often made out, but there is enough of a signal in the trends to suggest that positive interventions to support free speech should be a focus.

“The challenge is that current efforts to support free speech tend to be a series of disconnected individual initiatives, with little evidence of what actually works in different circumstances. If we’re really interested in supporting free speech in universities, giving students the environment and tools that they need, we need to invest in understanding this better.”

Read the full report, Freedom of speech in UK higher education: recommendations for policy and practice.

Related departments