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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 passed the House of Commons on 13 June 2022. It had its second reading in the House of Lords on 28 June 2022 and is awaiting a date for committee stage.

What the Bill would do

In its current form, the Bill has ten 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 10 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;
    • new monitoring of overseas funding;
    • a new Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom.

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

Commons second reading

The Bill had its second reading in the Commons on 12 July 2021.

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.

Commons committee stage

Committee stage in the Commons comprised four sessions of oral evidence and eight sessions of line-by-line scrutiny (PDF) between 7 and 21 September 2021.

13 new clauses and 85 amendments were tabled (PDF). One new clause and 26 amendments, all tabled by the Government, were subsequently agreed. 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 Bill’s scope.

Amendments and new clauses were tabled by Labour 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 then-Minister of State for Higher and Further Education, Michelle Donelan, said she would consider the issues raised.

Commons report stage and third reading

The Bill’s report stage and third reading in the Commons were held on 13 June 2022. Seven new clauses and 21 new amendments were tabled (PDF). One new clause and 16 amendments, all tabled by the Government, were agreed. These covered the following areas:

  • The OfS would have to assess if overseas funding, including from research grants, donations, and partnerships, might place a university in breach of its duties to uphold freedom of speech and academic freedom.
  • Universities and students’ unions would have to ensure only in “exceptional circumstances” would organisers cover the security costs of their events.
  • The caveat that academic freedom protections covered only an academic’s “field of expertise” was removed.
  • The duties on universities and constituent colleges to secure freedom of speech was extended to the activities of Junior and Middle Common Rooms (JCRs and MCRs).
  • It was confirmed complaints to the new OfS scheme can be withdrawn, the OfS would not have to rule on withdrawn complaints, and the OfS would have absolute privilege against defamation claims relating to the scheme.

Labour tabled amendments that, among other things, sought to define academic freedom, to give Parliament oversight of the appointment of the Free Speech Director, and to limit the ability of non-disclosure/confidentiality agreements to inhibit free speech in cases of sexual misconduct. None of these were accepted.

The Bill passed its third reading without a vote.

Lords second reading

The Bill had its second reading in the House of Lords on 28 June 2022.

Members of the House of Lords raised several issues with the Bill’s principles and its current provisions, including the Government’s priorities for improving higher education, the likely administrative and financial burden on universities, contradictions with other proposed legislation and Department for Education policy, and the appointment process of the Free Speech Director.

The Bill passed its second reading in the Lords without a vote.

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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