University freedom of speech bill to be presented to parliament

Universities minister Michelle Donelan questioned “how can we expect society to progress or for opinions to modernise unless we can challenge the status quo?”

The government has today taken the first step towards tackling the “chilling effect of censorship” on freedom of speech at universities, outlining plans for fines for providers and student unions in England that break new codes. 

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.

HE providers will not just be liable for protecting freedom of speech, but “promoting it” too, ministers said. The bill is to be introduced today (12 May). 

Legislation will, for the first time, include university students’ unions, which would be required to “take reasonably practicable steps to ensure lawful freedom of speech”. 

The enforcement of these new rules – and the imposition of fines to those that break them – will rest with a newly constituted board-level role within the OfS. The new position of director for freedom of speech and academic freedom will have powers to investigate cases and oversee a new complaints scheme for students, staff and visiting speakers.

University mission group MillionPlus warned ministers the new bill risks duplicating existing legislation and creating “bureaucratic burdens” for universities. The University and College Union claimed ministers were “using freedom of speech as a Trojan horse”.

Holding universities to account on the importance of freedom of speech in higher education is a milestone moment,” education secretary Gavin Williamson said, “protecting the rights of students and academics, and countering the chilling effect of censorship on campus once and for all.” 

After all how can we expect society to progress or for opinions to modernise unless we can challenge the status quo?
– Michelle Donelan, universities minister

The bill provides a route for students, staff, job applicants, and speakers to refer a complaint to the OfS if they have “suffered adverse consequences as a result of action or inaction of [a university] governing body… [or] as a result of action or inaction of a students’ union”.

In the explanatory notes published alongside the wording of the bill, the government estimated that the cost of the new rules and regulations to the sector would cost the sector between £4.6m and £5.3m per year. “Registered higher education providers and students’ unions are the main affected groups that are expected to incur costs including: familiarisation costs; compliance costs: the direct costs of complying with the regulation and enforcement; and administrative burden,” the notes explain.

The government gave one example of what it described as the “chilling effect” of SU rules and policies on freedom of speech, which suggests unions would not be allowed to invoice student societies for security at events that could attract protestors.

In 2019, a student society at the University of Bristol was told by the university students union it would have to pay the £500 cost of security needed for an event to host the Israeli Ambassador.

In a letter sent to the Bristol Middle East Forum (BMEF) – posted on Twitter by the society’s chair Sabrina Miller – Bristol SU explained: “Due to the nature of the proposed speakers, approval is subject to… mandatory mitigations”. These include, the SU said, “a designated security presence… to ensure safety and manage any protest that materialises”. However, the same SU did not deem extra security necessary for a visiting Palestinian ambassador hosted by BMEF and, therefore, did not charge the society for any security costs.

The DfE also gave an example of academic censorship that its bill would tackle, referring to an open letter signed by 100 University of Oxford academics that repudiated a fellow Oxford professor for his opinions on the British Empire.

In an opinion piece published in The Times in 2017 – Don’t feel guilty about our colonial history – Prof Nigel Biggar wrote: “If we recognise that the history of the British Empire was morally mixed, just like that of any nation-state, then pride can temper shame.” The letter published in response expressed concern that Prof Biggar’s view “risk being misconstrued as representative of Oxford scholarship”.

Read more: Free speech champion to tackle ‘censoring and silencing’ at universities

Dr Greg Walker, chief executive of MillionPlus, said the requirement to uphold freedom of speech and academic were were “already enshrined in two acts of parliament and the OfS’s expectations on university governance”. He warned additional legislation must “avoid adding unnecessary bureaucratic burdens on universities” and vowed his members would “work constructively with parliamentarians” once the bill’s wording is released.

On freedom of speech, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said threats to freedom of speech come not from students and staff but “government and university managers”. 

“Widespread precarious employment strips academics of the ability to speak and research freely, and curtails chances for career development. Free speech and academic freedom are threatened more widely on campus by government interference in the form of the Prevent duty, and attempts to impose the IHRA definition and examples of antisemitism on universities,” she added. 

Universities minister Michelle Donelan said: “The values of freedom of speech and academic freedom are a huge part of what makes our higher education system so well respected around the world.

“Which is why this government will tackle head on the growing chilling effect on our campuses which is silencing and censoring students, academics and visiting speakers. 

“This bill will ensure universities not only protect free speech but promote it too. After all how can we expect society to progress or for opinions to modernise unless we can challenge the status quo?”

Read more: Queen’s speech: Lifelong learning, R&D and ARIA headline government plans for next year

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