On 28 June 2022, the second reading of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is scheduled to take place in the House of Lords.

Freedom of speech in higher education refers to the ability of staff, students and visiting speakers to express any lawful views. Academic freedom is the ability to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions.

Reported breaches of freedom of speech take a number of forms, including ‘no platforming’ and ‘safe spaces’. The Joint Committee on Human Rights said that such breaches were “not pervasive”. However, the government and others have argued that collectively they create a “chilling effect” that has reduced students’ confidence to exercise freedom of speech.

A range of existing legislation and regulation governs freedom of speech in higher education. The government has argued that this is overly complex and contains gaps, such as that victims of breaches cannot obtain redress. In February 2021, the government issued a white paper containing proposed remedial measures. The bill largely reflects the paper through:

  • requiring higher education providers (HEPs) and students’ unions to maintain a code of practice on freedom of speech
  • a new category of tort, to allow a person to bring a civil case against an HEP or students’ union for a breach of its duties
  • new powers and duties for the Office for Students (OfS), the regulator for HEPs in England, including a complaints scheme and a director for freedom of speech and academic freedom

The Labour Party opposed the bill in the House of Commons, arguing that there had been only a small number of incidents where free speech was threatened and that these could be dealt with through existing legislation. It was concerned the new tort could lead to vexatious claims against HEPs.

Several government amendments were made during the bill’s Commons stages. These included: bringing the colleges of Oxford, Cambridge and Durham Universities within the scope of the bill; requiring the OfS to monitor whether overseas funding presents risks to freedom of speech; and providing that HEPs should oversee the activities of their students’ unions.

No opposition amendments were made. Those defeated on division included steps that were intended to limit the extent to which the director for freedom of speech and academic freedom could be a political appointment.

Related posts

  • Powers of Attorney Bill: HL Bill 121 of 2022–23

    The Powers of Attorney Bill would introduce changes to the existing process for making and registering lasting powers of attorney (LPA). This would include introducing identity verification when applying to register an LPA and streamlining how individuals could object to the registration. It would allow different processes and evidence to be accepted depending on whether an LPA is made digitally, on paper or a combination of the two. Additionally, it would permit chartered legal executives to certify copies of LPAs.

    Powers of Attorney Bill: HL Bill 121 of 2022–23
  • Protection from Sex-based Harassment in Public Bill: HL Bill 125 of 2022–23

    The Protection from Sex-based Harassment in Public Bill is a private member’s bill which provides for a new offence of causing intentional harassment, alarm or distress to a person in public because of that person’s sex or presumed sex. The bill has cross-party support and has passed all stages in the House of Commons. It is due to receive its second reading in the House of Lords on 16 June 2023.

    Protection from Sex-based Harassment in Public Bill: HL Bill 125 of 2022–23
  • Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill: HL Bill 136 of 2022–23

    The Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill would introduce a new credit-based method of calculating the maximum tuition fee limits for higher education courses in England. This would ensure fee limits were set consistently across modules, short courses and full courses, so that learners who studied flexibly would not be charged disproportionately. The bill supports the introduction of the government’s lifelong loan entitlement (LLE). From 2025, the LLE would give people access to a flexible loan worth £37,000 that could be used to enrol in post-18 education courses throughout their working life. The government has committed to reform post-18 education. It said the current student financing framework did not encourage individuals to study flexibly throughout their lifetime.

    Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill: HL Bill 136 of 2022–23