The government’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill became law this month, more than two years after the bill was introduced to Parliament. It puts new duties on universities, colleges and their students’ unions, and gives the Office for Students (OfS) an enhanced role in promoting free speech.
The Act is not yet fully in force as the Government has to make regulations and set out more detail about how the Act will work and the OfS will consult on how the new duties should be regulated and how the new complaints scheme should operate. The new duties and measures specified under this Act are expected to come into force before the 2024-25 academic year.
Implications for governance:
The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act has taken two years to pass through parliament and its path has not been smooth, but now we need to consider what the new legislation will mean in practice for students, staff, external speakers, students’ unions, universities and their governors.
The series of duties in the new Act fall to governing bodies to enact and oversee, protecting and promoting freedom of speech and laying out how the institution will do this, ensuing that overseas funding presents no threat to free speech on campus, and drawing up a code of practice to demonstrate how institutions secure and promote both academic freedom and freedom of speech.
Governors will need to be cognisant, when considering and signing off their codes of practices, of the potential conflicts between the duties of the new Act and the need to comply with existing legislation, including but not restricted to equality law and protected characteristics, the public sector equality and Prevent duties and harassment and discrimination law. OfS has already provided extensive guidance which concludes that people espousing “offensive” but lawful views will need to have their rights upheld.
On overseas funding, governors will need to understand what funding comes from overseas governments and companies, including from partner providers, and whether any overseas donor or partner is a “politically exposed person” – (these could range from a head of state to a CEO in a state-sponsored industry).
As students’ unions also have responsibilities under the Act – and any noncompliance on the part of student unions can present a reputational risk to the institution itself – working together on the implications of the new duties across campus might be beneficial. HE student governors will no doubt have a key role to play here.
A more detailed briefing by Eversheds Education Team is available here.