Universities could face fines or be taken to court over free speech failures

·3-min read

Universities in England could face fines if they fail to protect free speech on campus under tougher legislation set to be introduced.

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill – which will “strengthen freedom of speech and academic freedom” at universities – was among the proposed changes to laws announced in the Queen’s Speech.

Academics, students or visiting speakers will be able to seek compensation through the courts if they suffer loss from a breach of the free speech duties under the proposed legislation.

It is hoped the changes will ensure that university staff feel safe to put forward controversial or unpopular opinions without being at risk of losing their jobs.

In February, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson warned against a “chilling effect” of “unacceptable silencing and censoring” on campuses as he unveiled a range of legal measures to protect free speech.

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Among the Government’s proposals is the appointment of a “free speech champion” who will investigate potential infringements of duties – such as no-platforming speakers or dismissal of academics.

Under the plans, new freedom of speech and academic duties would be placed on higher education institutions and students’ unions – and the Office for Students (OfS), the higher education regulator in England, would have the power to impose fines on institutions if they breached the condition.

For the first time, students’ unions at universities would be required to take steps to secure lawful freedom of speech for members and visiting speakers.

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Last month, the Russell Group, which represents traditionally the most selective institutions in the UK, said its members would continue to safeguard academic freedom and freedom of speech following ministers’ concerns.

But the University and College Union (UCU) previously criticised the Government for prioritising “phantom threats to free speech” over the impact of Covid-19 on students and staff, while the National Union of Students (NUS) said there was “no evidence of a freedom of expression crisis” on campus.

On the proposals, Jo Grady, UCU general secretary, said: “There are serious threats to freedom of speech and academic freedom from campus, but they come from the government and university managers, not staff and students.

“Widespread precarious employment strips academics of the ability to speak and research freely, and curtails chances for career development.”

A Universities UK (UUK) spokeswoman said: “Universities are (rightly) already legally required to have a code of practice on free speech and to update this regularly.

“It is important that the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is proportionate by focusing on the small number of incidents, while not duplicating existing legislation and creating unnecessary bureaucracy for universities which could have unintended consequences.”

The Government’s proposals also include the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill – which will support a “lifetime skills guarantee” to enable flexible access to high quality education and training post-16.

It is hoped the legislation will remove the bias against technical education, enable people to access flexible funding for higher or further education (FE), and bring university and FE colleges closer together.

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