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Academic Freedom and Equalities Charters 

11 October 2022

3 mins

In May, the Acting Chief Executive of the Office for Students tweeted a link to a SpikedOnline article that heavily criticised Advance HE’s Race Equality and Athena SWAN Charters. Susan Lapworth’s tweet said, “I’d expect autonomous universities to be thinking carefully and independently about their free speech duty when signing up to these sort of schemes.” 

The article, and Susan’s tweet, are examples of concerns that there are fundamental tensions between a university’s duty to uphold free speech and academic freedom, and equalities schemes designed to tackle inequity in our sector.  

Following discussions with stakeholders, and especially our staff networks, Loughborough University will remain members of the Race Equality Charter, Athena Swan Charter and Stonewall Diversity Champions. We’ve also committed to the IHRA definition of antisemitism. Our position doesn’t mean that we comprehensively agree with, for example, every single policy statement by a sponsoring group. It’s possible to find value as members of the schemes and still disagree with aspects. The schemes though remain important mechanisms to aid progress on matters of equality. We know recent online attacks on the University’s decision to renew our membership of the Stonewall scheme have caused genuine distress amongst some in our community. We want to take this opportunity to reassure and reassert the University’s commitment to all three Charters. 

There is not and never has been an unfettered right to freedom of expression and academic freedom. You can’t falsely shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. Nor can you bully, harass or discriminate against colleagues and students. 

We need to be really clear. Academic freedom and free speech are precious and our University will resolutely defend these. But we also will resolutely deal with bullying, harassment and discrimination where we find it, and take disciplinary action when appropriate. Freedom of speech and academic freedom allow an individual to believe in a Free Palestine, but it is antisemitic to stick such a leaflet to our Jewish students’ noticeboard. Freedom of speech and academic freedom allow the holding of gender-critical academic perspectives, but not the transphobic defacement of material promoting LGBTQ+ inclusivity. These are both real examples from our campuses in recent months. 

We have debated and approved at Senate, resources to help apply our existing duties on academic freedom and freedom of speech. We are well prepared and know how to differentiate in each situation. 

The Government believe freedom of expression to be under such threat in higher education that primary legislation is on its way. Our view is we are unconvinced such legislation is necessary, with already existing strong measures to protect free speech on campus. Regardless we are confident LU’s commitment to advancing equity, diversity and inclusion and free speech & academic freedom, are not in fundamental tension, even if it suits some to suggest they might be. 

To this end a series of ‘Strategic Conversations’ led by Professor Croffie, are being designed to explore actual and perceived tensions that exist across the Equality, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion space.  Further details of these inclusive events will follow.   

Professor Charlotte Croffie, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Equity, Diversity & Inclusion) 

Richard Taylor, Chief Operating Officer 

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

Reflections, comments, discussion and opinion on EDI topics from Loughborough University staff and students

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