Freedom of speech bill could affect university hiring and firing – Nick Hillman

Hepi chair warns university human resources teams about implications of proposed academic freedom law

Nick Hillman, chair of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), has told university human resource teams their work could be adversely affected by the draft freedom of speech bill.

The think tank chief told delegates at the Universities Human Resources (UHR) 2021 conference they should pay attention to two sections of the draft legislation that could affect recruitment and redundancy processes.

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will require universities and colleges registered with the Office for Students (OfS) to “defend free speech and help stamp out unlawful ‘silencing’”, the Department for Education (DfE) announced yesterday (12 May).

Referring to the wording of the draft legislation, Hillman said that clause A1(6) sought to redefine academic freedom as most people in higher education understood it.

“Clause six redefines academic freedom. It says academic freedom of academic staff, means ‘their freedom within the law’ to question received wisdom, and so on and so forth, and ‘within their field of expertise’. So it’s redefining academic freedom, as, you know, a chemist having academic freedom to speak about chemistry, but maybe not to speak about politics.

“That is pretty profound and pretty important. And I don’t know if that is what most academics or most universities currently regard as academic freedom”.

Clause A1(6) of the draft Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) bill


The think tank head also alerted his audience of HR leaders that clause A1(9) of the draft bill could limit their right to recruit only staff whose values align with their own, since it says job applications cannot be adversely affected by views the candidate has expressed.

“Look at clause 9. The objective is securing where a person applies to become a member of academic staff, that the person is not adversely affected in relation to the application because of that view. So you might have some really unpalatable people with values rather different to your institution’s values, applying for jobs. And if you turn them down, because their values are different to your values […] perhaps that will, in future, be against the law.

Clause A1(9) of the draft Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) bill


“Of course, it’s still got to go through Parliament, and who knows how it will emerge at the other end,” Hillman said. “But, of course, it’s part of the wider culture war that’s going on.”

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