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 or sets guidelines for 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 curbs 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 – the university and students’ union as a whole – is then arrived at as an average of the two constituent rankings, so as to give a picture of the freedom a student can generally expect to experience on a particular campus. Each individual policy and action is also ranked using the traffic light.
We cover 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 they are allowed to wear. What’s more, we also include policies that constitute thought reform, such as mandatory conduct classes, and policies that require students to say certain things: we maintain that being compelled to think or 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 through restricting vague and subjective types of speech, such as ‘offensive’ or ‘insulting’ speech, or requiring burdensome vetting procedures for events, speakers, posters or publications. Many policies in this category might not explicitly limit speech, but have the potential to be used to that end, due to purposefully vague or careless wording.
A students’ union, university or institution that, as far as we are aware, places no significant restrictions on free speech and expression – other than where such speech or expression is unlawful.
Policies are gathered from Freedom of Information requests and publicly published minutes, policy documents and statements. Universities and students’ unions are contacted throughout the process. We assess policies that are currently in force at universities and students’ unions, and we assess actions that have been enacted over the past three academic years. 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 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. Whereas harassment, for instance, is not a free-speech issue, defining expressing offensive views as a form of harassment is a free-speech issue.
The types of actions we examine include, but are not limited to:
- Bans on controversial speakers
- Bans on newspapers
- Punishment of students on the grounds of offensive views
In each year’s survey, we include actions that have taken place in the past three academic years – the average lifespan of a students’ union ban.
We assess 115 institutions. The universities were selected from the lists of the higher-education funding bodies of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. A number of institutions were excluded on a range of grounds, including size and specialism, so that we were comparing institutions like-for-like. Medical, arts and agricultural institutions, for example, have been excluded entirely.
For universities which have multiple students’ unions associated with them, we assess them, collectively, as one entity, while 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 only assess the policies of the overarching university and students’ union. However, actions taken by individual colleges or common rooms will contribute to the university's or students’ union’s respective rankings, as it again provides an indication of the culture on campus with regards to free speech.
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 – knowingly or unknowingly – 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. This amounts to the equivalent of its most severe policy. For example, a university that holds three Amber policies and one Red policy would receive an overall Red ranking. This is on the condition that a policy poses a significant threat to 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 will raise the university to an Amber ranking. Red actions refer to explicit bans, whereas Amber actions refer to decisions that chill free speech: for example, a university or students’ union calling on the other to ban something, or mandating trigger warnings on a particular text.
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 ranking the institution should receive.
To find out more about the FSUR, or to request further comment, contact Tom Slater.