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This paper has been written for the House of Commons Second Reading debate on the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill. The Bill was presented in the House of Commons on 12 May 2021. It seeks to bring forward a range of measures aimed at strengthening and extending existing legislation on freedom of speech and academic freedom in higher education. The Bill implements the legislative proposals in the Department for Education policy paper, Higher Education: free speech and academic freedom, February 2021 CP394.

Provisions in the Bill would: allow the Office for Students (OfS) to monitor and enforce freedom of speech measures at higher education institutions, 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 and create a role of Director of Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom at the OfS.

The Bill is a piece of amending legislation. It primarily amends the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 but it also makes amendments to the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, the Higher Education Act 2004 and the Education (No. 2) Act 1986.

The Bill has eight substantive clauses: clauses 1-3 relate to the duties to protect freedom of speech; clauses 4-8 relate to the functions of the OfS; and clauses 9 and 10 are general minor amendments and commencement provisions. The Bill has one schedule; part 1 contains amendments to the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, part 2 contains amendments to the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 and part 3 contains amendments to other Acts.

This briefing paper provides background on the main provisions of the Bill, contains reaction to the Bill and raises issues. The Paper follows the outline of the Bill but is not intended to be an exhaustive clause-by-clause analysis; the Explanatory Notes to the Bill, published alongside it, provide explanation of individual clauses. The Bill and accompanying documents are available on the Parliament website at Parliamentary Bills, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill.

Most provisions of the Bill extend to England and Wales, but some apply to England only; the provisions which amend the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 extend to England, Wales and Scotland. Clause 10 and Annex A of the Bill sets out the territorial extent of the Bill.

Commons Library Briefing Paper, Freedom of speech – is there a problem? CBP 9143, 4 March 2021 discusses the proposals.

The following documents are relevant to the Bill:

Documents to download

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