In a major victory for free speech on campus, the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill got over the final hurdle in the House of Lords earlier this month and has now received Royal Assent.
This is something the FSU has been campaigning for for three years. We lobbied for the Bill when the Government was weighing up whether it was needed, advised the Government on what to include in it, defended it from critics in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, helped to amend it and, finally, mobilised our allies in Parliament to get it over the line.
The Bill does two things that will help secure academic freedom.
First, it will impose a legal duty on higher education providers (HEPs) to uphold and promote free speech and extend that duty to students’ unions.
Second, it will create two new enforcement mechanisms, so HEPs aren’t able to ignore these duties. The first of these will be the appointment of a Director of Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom to the Office for Students (OfS), whom students and academics can complain to if they believe their speech rights under the Higher Education Act 2023 have been breached. This new ‘free speech tsar’ has already been appointed – it’s Dr Arif Ahmed (above), a professor of philosophy at Cambridge with impeccable free speech credentials – and he will have the power to fine HEPs if he finds them at fault. The second enforcement mechanism is the creation of a new statutory tort, whereby students and academics will be able to sue HEPs in the County Court if their speech rights have been breached.
Taken together, this package of measures will go some way towards addressing the free speech crisis in our universities. About 20% of the 2,000+ cases we’ve dealt with in the past three years have involved universities, and we believe that in almost every one the student or academic who’s got into trouble would have been in a stronger position if this new law had been on the statute books. Indeed, the fact that the new law will shortly be activated played a part in OUSU’s u-turn over its ban on the Oxford Union from freshers’ fair.