OIA response to government policy paper Higher education: free speech and academic freedom

Our response to the government’s paper on free speech and academic freedom in higher education.

We are carefully considering the government’s policy paper, Higher education: free speech and academic freedom. We are concerned about some elements of the proposals outlined in the paper that relate to our role and remit and look forward to working with government and others to try to resolve these concerns.   

The proposal for a Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion on the OfS Board envisages that the Champion will have a role in recommending redress for individual complaints about freedom of speech, including those raised by students at OfS-registered higher education providers. We believe this could create confusion for students about the route through which they can pursue concerns relating to freedom of speech.

Students studying at a provider in England or Wales that is a member of the OIA Scheme can currently bring unresolved complaints involving freedom of speech to the OIA. Membership of the OIA Scheme is wider than OfS-registered providers so the proposals could result in students having different routes to complain about freedom of speech issues depending on where they are studying.

The proposals envisage that student complaints which are exclusively about free speech and academic freedom would be considered by the OfS. In our experience, student complaints that involve freedom of speech usually also involve other aspects, for example issues regarding academic research, or disciplinary or fitness to practise, and may involve professional standards. It’s important that these complaints are reviewed holistically. While we welcome the government’s intention to work with stakeholders on the demarcation of responsibilities, we are concerned that in practice it may be difficult to define clearly which complaints can be considered by which body. It could also be difficult for students to know where to raise their complaint depending on the precise issues of the complaint.

Felicity Mitchell, Independent Adjudicator said:

“As the ombuds service for student complaints about higher education providers, our role is to provide independent and impartial review of unresolved complaints about the bodies in our jurisdiction. That is different from the role of a regulator, and we believe it is important that this distinction is maintained. It will be challenging to make sure that the Champion, whose role is to champion free speech, will also be in a position to fairly and impartially review complaints about freedom of speech.”

Ben Elger, Chief Executive said:

“We will work with government and other organisations on these proposals as they relate to our role. However our highest organisational priority must remain continuing to respond effectively to the profound impact of the pandemic on students and the higher education sector.”


Notes to Editors

For further information please contact Sarah Liddell, Head of Leadership Office, mediarelations@oiahe.org.uk, 0118 959 9813.

  1. The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) is the independent student complaints ombuds service for higher education in England and Wales. We are the designated operator of the student complaints’ scheme under the Higher Education Act 2004 and are approved by the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) as the alternative dispute resolution (ADR) body for higher education. We are a member of the Ombudsman Association.
  2. We have a wide remit to review student complaints on a broad range of issues about higher education providers in England and Wales, as set out in our Scheme Rules. Over 800 higher education providers are members of our Scheme.
  3. Our Scheme is free to students and has been designed to be accessible to all students, without the need for legal representation.
  4. You can find further information about the Scheme and our work at https://www.oiahe.org.uk/.