On the 11th of May, the Higher Education Freedom of Speech Bill became law, helping protect freedom of speech and academic freedom on university campuses. The legislation will establish a new free speech complaints system and strengthen the legal duties placed on higher education providers in England to protect and promote freedom of speech on campuses up and down the country.

What Impact Will the Act Have on Universities?

The Act will place more responsibility on universities to ensure that students are able to speak freely both in the classroom and out on campus. It also works to provide more protection for academics who teach material some students may find offensive. Overall, these changes work to strengthen the duties already in place at universities to protect freedom of speech, bringing about a cultural change in higher education.

What Changes Will Universities Have to Make to Ensure Freedom of Speech?

The Act will require universities, colleges and students’ unions in England to take steps to ensure lawful freedom of speech on campuses. These freedoms do not include unlawful speech, for example harassing others, inciting violence or terrorism. They will also have to decide if the speech shared is considered lawful by taking into account legislation such as the Equality Act 2010. They will further be required to publish a code of practice of freedom of speech on campus as well.

The Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom

As part of the Act, Professor Arif Ahmed has been appointed as the new Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom. He will oversee the Office for Students (OfS) free speech functions, including the new complaints scheme and investigations where universities are accused of breaching their duties under the Act. He will champion free speech on campuses and ensure that the OfS takes action where needed.

Arif Ahmed is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. For many years he has campaigned for the defence of free speech and academic freedom. This work was recognised in the Queen’s 2021 Birthday Honours where he was awarded an MBE.

What Does This Mean for Students, Lecturers, and Visiting Speakers?

Under the Act, universities won’t be allowed to silence people who raise complaints of sexual misconduct, abuse, harassment, or bullying by using non-disclosure agreements. The Act seeks to protect students and those in the past who have suffered harm due to their complaints being silenced.

The Office for Students will also be establishing a free-to-use complaints scheme as part of the Act. As the higher education regulator in England, this sets a standard for universities to follow, ensuring those with complaints are protected. This also means any students, staff and visiting speakers will be able to bring claims to court if they feel they have suffered a loss as a result of their free speech rights being unlawfully restricted.

The Next Steps

Once the Act comes into force over the next few years, the Government will set out regulations and guidance for universities to follow. The Office for Students will also be consulting on how the new duties universities have to carry out should be regulated in addition to how the complaints system will operate.

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On the 11th of May, the Higher Education Freedom of Speech Bill became law, helping protect freedom of speech and academic freedom on university campuses. This government update discusses what the act means for higher education providers and protecting students at university.

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