Only three Russell Group universities make commitment to institutional neutrality, CAF investigation finds.

Only three of the twenty-four Russell Group universities have publicly committed to maintaining institutional neutrality. 

Universities have been required, since the 1986 Education Act, to publish a code of conduct for their staff and students, with the aim of securing freedom of speech at the university. These codes of conduct often appear in the form of a university policy (University of Liverpool), or statement on free speech (University of Edinburgh). A university’s policy, statement, or code of conduct often constitutes the university’s only public commitment to securing free speech and academic freedom.  

CAF has investigated all the policies, statements, and codes of conduct on freedom of speech published by Russell Group universities. All Russell Group universities have published a commitment to securing freedom of speech at events hosted by the university. For instance, the University of Bristol states:

No use of land or buildings of the University shall be denied to any individual or body of persons on any grounds solely connected with: (i) the beliefs or views of that individual or of that body… 

Some Russell Group universities, for instance, the University of Cambridge, and University College London, state that university staff will be able to exercise freedom of speech within the law without risk of losing their job or any university privileges. Some others have committed to actively promoting freedom of speech. For instance, Queen Mary University states that it will endeavour to “provide opportunities to facilitate discourse on contemporary issues by encouraging critical debate within the law”, with the aim of securing academic freedom and freedom of speech. 

If universities are to secure freedom of speech and academic freedom, they must preserve institutional neutrality. Definitions of institutional neutrality are debated; however, central to the principle is the idea that universities must not have official points of view, where this is not directly necessary for the university’s core mission of research and teaching. An official view discourages  exploration of, and support for, alternative points of view. It has a “chilling effect”. Importantly, that a university does not take a view on some academic or political debate does not prevent the university from taking action informed by that debate. A university may decide to divest from fossil fuel companies without promulgating an official view on human-caused climate change.  

Of the twenty-four Russell Group universities only three make any commitment to institutional neutrality in their policies, statements, and codes of conduct on freedom of speech. The three universities are: 

Queen Mary University 

Except where expressly agreed by the Council in line with advancing the University’s charitable objects (as defined in the University Charter), the University does not take an institutional position on political, cultural and religious debates 

London School of Economics and Political Science 

The School, as an institution, does not take a formal position on political or international disputes. Instead, it endeavours to provide a platform to facilitate discourse on contemporary issues by encouraging critical debate, within the law, where the views of all parties are treated with respect. 

University of Edinburgh 

The University and the Students’ Union both have charitable status, and… must be politically neutral in their starting point, and refrain from actively promoting a particular point of view that is not tied to that general charitable purpose. 

Institutional neutrality is the part of the foundation of freedom of speech and academic freedom at universities. It is essential to the university’s mission of teaching and research. The absence of institutional neutrality, in addition to creating a chilling effect, can be mechanised to penalise and fire academics with dissenting views. Recently, Wrexham University cited its own proudly Welsh identity in connection to its decision to investigate and fire a professor who posted that Welsh road signs should only be in English. A public commitment to institutional neutrality can prevent the chilling effect arising from an official view, and removes a mechanism for intimidating and firing dissenting staff. All UK universities should commit to institutional neutrality.