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Queen's Speech 2021: Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

The Queen’s Speech sets out what legislative plans the government want to pursue over the next parliamentary year. This year, it was announced the government would introduce a Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill.


What is the Bill?

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill seeks to require higher education institutions and students’ unions to protect freedom of speech.

Measures include:

  • Allow the Office for Students to monitor and enforce freedom of speech measures at higher education institutions. They can impose fines on infringing institutions.

  • Create a role of Director of Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom at the Office for Students who monitors cases of no-platforming and academic dismissals.

  • Introduce a complaints system and redress for breaches of free speech duties through the introduction of a statutory tort.

  • Extend duties on free speech to students’ unions.

  • Imposing a duty on higher education providers to ‘actively promote’ freedom of speech.


Why introduce the Bill?

The intention of the Bill is to ensure university staff feel free to put forward controversial or unpopular views without being at risk of losing their jobs. It will also try to tackle censorship at higher education institutions ‘once and for all.’

The Bill was introduced by the Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson who stated: “Our legal system allows us to articulate views which others may disagree with as long as they don't meet the threshold of hate speech or inciting violence - this must be defended, nowhere more so than within our world-renowned universities.”

The purpose for the introduction of the Bill comes from the policy set out in the 2019 Conservative Manifesto that pledged to “strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities.”

A report called ‘Freedom of expression in UK universities’ from King’s College London in 2019 found that 97% of students thought it was important for freedom of speech and academic freedom to be protected in universities. The report also found some students report reluctance to express their views for fear of disagreement with their peers.

Academic freedom of speech is already protected by the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 in which higher educational institutions must take steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students, staff and visiting speakers. Therefore, this government feels this pre-existing legislation does not go far enough to protect against censorship at universities. They hope this new Bill will add further protection.


When?

The Bill was introduced into the House of Commons on 12 May 2021 and has passed the first reading. It is currently at the second reading (as of 12/06/2021) where it will continue to be debated.


Matthew Esam, Policy & News Associate


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