How we rank
University: refers to a university administration – separate from the academic staff and the students' union.
Students’ union: refers to the students’ union administration.
Institution: refers to the university and students’ union when taken as a whole.
Policy: a document held by a university or a students’ union that governs students' conduct and speech, or mandates certain procedures with regard to academic or political activity.
Action: a decision taken by either a university or a students’ union that abridges free speech. This includes, but is not limited to, bans on specific speakers, books, newspapers, songs and words. These are binding restrictions, but are too specific to be considered a policy.
The traffic light
The FSUR uses a traffic-light system to assess and rank each individual university and students’ union. An overall ranking for the institution as a whole is then given as an average of the two rankings. Each individual policy and action of a university or students’ union is also ranked using the traffic-light.
The survey covers policies and bans relating to all forms of free expression, from what students are allowed to say to what publications, songs or adverts they are allowed to engage with to what speakers they are allowed to invite to campus and what clothes – or fancy dress – they are allowed to wear. What’s more, we also cover policies and actions that constitute thought reform, such as mandatory conduct classes and policies that require students to say certain things. We maintain that being compelled to express something is as corrosive to free speech as being prohibited from expressing something.
A students’ union, university or institution that is hostile to free speech and free expression, mandating explicit restrictions on speech, including, but not limited to, bans on specific ideologies, political affiliations, beliefs, books, speakers or words.
A students’ union, university or institution that chills free speech and free expression by issuing guidance with regard to appropriate speech and conduct. Policies in this category often concern themselves with the tone, rather than the content, of speech and ideas. This includes, but is not limited to, restrictions on ‘offensive’, ‘controversial’ or ‘provocative’ speech and expression. Policies which vet speakers, literature or events may also fall within this category.
A students’ union, university or institution that, as far as we are aware, places no restrictions on free speech and expression – other than where such speech or expression is unlawful.
In order to assess each institution, we collect and assess the actions and policies of universities and students’ unions. The policies and actions we assess are ones which apply only to students’ speech and conduct. While academic freedom is a closely related issue, the FSUR is a student-focused survey. The policies and actions we assess are not limited to the academic context. Policies and actions which affect extra-curricular student activities – including political and social activities – are also assessed. The information is gathered through Freedom of Information requests and looking at publicly published minutes, policy documents and reports. Universities and students’ unions are contacted throughout the process, and the research deadline is January 2017.
The types of policies we examine include, but are not limited to:
- Free Speech and External Speaker policies
- Bullying and Harassment policies
- Equal Opportunities policies
- No Platform policies
- Safe Space policies
- Student Codes of Conduct
It should be noted that holding one of the above policies does not constitute an instant offence – they are each assessed on the basis of their content.
The types of actions we examine include, but are not limited to:
- Bans on controversial speakers
- Bans on newspapers
- Expulsion of students on the grounds of their controversial views or statements
We assess actions which have taken place in the past three academic years – the average lifespan of a campus ban.
The survey assesses 115 institutions. The universities were selected from the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s (HEFCE) list of UK universities that it funds. A number of institutions were excluded on a range of grounds. Medical, arts and agricultural institutions were excluded entirely.
For universities which have multiple students’ unions attached to them, we assess them, collectively, as one entity, noting which policies and actions originate from each union.
For universities which function under the college system, with individual college administrations and common rooms, we assess the policies of the overarching university and students’ union, but actions taken by individual colleges or common rooms will contribute to the university's and the students’ union’s respective rankings.
There are numerous restrictions placed on speech by UK law. We have not marked down any institution for attempting to restrict illegal speech. It is when institutions overstep that line – through enacting extra-legal censorship or expanding legal definitions unnecessarily – that they are given a negative assessment.
The individual ranking
A university’s or students’ union’s individual ranking is arrived at by assessing its policies and actions.
The score is the equivalent of the university’s or students’ union’s most severe policy. For instance, a university that holds three Amber and one Red policy would receive an overall Red ranking. This is on the condition that a policy will only be given a Red or Amber ranking if it places a significant restriction on free speech and expression. Policies that only affect a specific area of campus life, such as IT policies, will be given the weight of a Red or Amber Action.
Red or Amber actions are the equivalent of one third of the weight of a Red or Amber policy.For instance, if an otherwise Amber university has three Red actions to its name, this would raise its ranking to an overall Red. What’s more, if an otherwise Green university has two Red Actions to its name, this is enough to raise the university to an Amber ranking.
The overall ranking
The institution’s overall ranking is the average of the university’s and students’ union’s individual rankings. When one is Red and the other is Green, the overall ranking will be Amber. But, if one is Amber and the other is either Red or Green, the number and severity of the policies on either side are used to make a judgement as to what rank the institution should receive.
To find out more about the FSUR, or to request further comment, contact Tom Slater.