Freedom of speech on campus - international perspectives

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill makes a return to Parliament this month when it will be subjected to scrutiny in the committee stage of the House of Lords.

As a brief reminder, the Bill will introduce new duties on English registered higher education providers and their constituent institutions to secure freedom of speech within the law and academic freedom.

For the first time, the Bill will also impose a duty on the student unions of fee-cap approved providers to secure freedom of speech.

The Office for Students (OfS) will be given a range of new powers to enforce these statutory duties.

One of the Government’s amendments to the Bill in the House of Commons will impose a new duty on the OfS to monitor the overseas funding of registered higher education providers and their constituent institutions with a view to assessing the extent to which such funding presents a risk to freedom of speech and /or academic freedom.

The overseas funding is to include amounts received by way of:

  • endowments, gifts or donations;
  • research grants;
  • research contracts; and
  • partnerships with the relevant overseas person.

The governing bodies of registered providers will be required to provide information to OfS in respect of overseas funding in any 12 month period specified by OfS above a threshold which will be specified in regulations made by the Secretary of State.

Regulations will also be made by the Secretary of State to prescribe countries which are outside the scope of these provisions.

Various amendments have been tabled for consideration by the House of Lords. In connection with the duty on the OfS to monitor overseas funding, an amendment has been tabled by Lord Johnson of Marylebone (a former Universities Minister) which will require the OfS to consider whether a registered English higher education provider or any constituent institution is overly reliant on overseas funding from a single country.

Any amendments made by the House of Lords will be subject to consideration by the House of Commons.

Pending the passing of this Bill, registered English higher education providers will continue to be subject to an existing statutory duty to secure freedom of speech within the law.

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