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The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill was introduced in the House of Commons on 12 May 2021. It would implement legislative proposals included in a Department for Education policy paper published in February 2021, which set out the Government’s view that freedom of speech was under threat across higher education.

The Bill would extend and strengthen existing legislation intended to uphold freedom of speech and academic freedom in registered higher education providers and students’ unions.

What is meant by ‘academic freedom’?

Academic freedom was established in law in 1988. Section 202 of the Education Reform Act 1988 gave academic staff the right “to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or the privileges they may have at their institutions.”

Academic freedom is one of the public interest governance principles which all higher education providers registered with the Office for Students (the higher education regulator in England) must comply with.

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill would add the caveat that academic freedom exists only within an academic’s “field of expertise”.

The Bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons on 12 July 2021 and its committee stage on 21 September 2021. A date for report stage and third reading has not been announced. On 25 April, a carry-over motion was agreed to allow the Bill to continue its progress in the next parliamentary session.

What the Bill would do

In its current form, the Bill has nine substantive clauses.

  • Clauses 1 to 3 relate to the legal duties of registered higher education providers, their constituent institutions, and students’ unions to protect freedom of speech and academic freedom.
  • Clause 4 would allow individuals to bring legal proceedings against a higher education provider or students’ union if they are not complying with their duties to protect freedom of speech and academic freedom.
  • Clauses 5 to 9 concern the functions of the Office for Students (OfS), which regulates higher education in England. They would introduce a new complaints scheme, new registration conditions for higher education providers, and a new Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom to the OfS board.

The Bill extends to England and Wales, but its main provisions apply to England. This means any practical effect would occur in England only.

Second reading debate

The Bill had its second reading in the Commons on 12 July 2021 and was debated for nearly five hours.

Conservative MPs and the Government argued the Bill was necessary to counter “growing intolerance” in universities and to uphold the principle of free speech in society.

Labour MPs questioned the evidence base used to justify the new legislation. They also raised concerns the Bill would protect hate speech and misinformation and asked why other issues facing the higher education sector were not receiving similar attention.

A Labour amendment to prevent the Bill’s passage was defeated by 367 votes to 216.

Committee stage

Committee stage began on 7 September 2021 and concluded on 21 September 2021. It comprised four sessions of oral evidence and eight sessions of line-by-line scrutiny (PDF).

85 amendments and 13 new clauses (PDF) were considered. Amendments 1 to 26 and new clause 1 were all tabled by the Government and subsequently accepted. These extended the Bill’s provisions to the constituent institutions of registered higher education providers, including the colleges of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, which initially fell outside the scope of the Bill.

Amendments and new clauses were tabled by the Opposition and other members of the committee on academic freedom, the Bill’s coverage of student bodies, the reporting requirements of the OfS, and the appointment process for the new director, none of which were accepted. In some cases, the Minister of State for Higher and Further Education, Michelle Donelan, said she would consider the issues raised.

Further reading

Background to the Bill, commentary on its provisions, and responses from the sector can be found in the Commons Library briefing Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill 2021.

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