This briefing outlines the main components of the Higher Education Bill, summarises the evidence showing why it’s necessary and rebuts some of the most common criticisms of it.
The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will strengthen protections for free speech and academic freedom in English universities by imposing more robust legal duties on Higher Education Providers and Student Unions. These include the duty to take reasonably practicable steps to protect the free speech of academic staff, non-academic staff, students and visitors to universities, to actively promote freedom of speech, and to protect academics’ freedom to question and test received wisdom, put forward new ideas and express controversial opinions.
There are already several laws protecting academic free speech on the statute books, but they are more honoured in the breach than the observance and this Bill will create mechanisms for enforcing those laws, including allowing civil claims to be brought against Higher Education Providers and Student Unions, as well as creating an avenue of complaint through the Office for Students via a new ‘Free Speech Champion’. These are positive steps that will further protect freedom of speech on campus.
We summarise the evidence that has already been compiled that free speech is in crisis in Britain’s universities, citing research by the University and College Union, Policy Exchange and ADF International, and add to this by drawing on the FSU’s case files. Of the 500 or so free speech cases we’ve been involved in over the past year, about 100 have involved university students or academics.
We also consider some of the most common criticisms of the Bill and do our best to rebut them.