Government ‘exaggerating threat to freedom of speech to push through new laws’, says university union

‘We think that this bill itself is a serious threat to freedom of speech,’ general secretary says

Zoe Tidman
Friday 14 May 2021 02:22 BST
The government has proposed new legislation to protect free speech on campus
The government has proposed new legislation to protect free speech on campus

The government has been accused of “over-exaggerating” the threat to free speech on campus in order to push through new laws by a university union.

New legislation will be introduced in parliament for the first time on Wednesday, which the education secretary said would tackle “the chilling effect of censorship on campus once and for all”. 

It would place new requirements on universities and student unions and allow a regulator able to issue fines for any breaches, among other measures. 

But the move has faced backlash from a union representing thousands of university staff in the UK who have been left “incredibly concerned” by the move.

Jo Grady, the general secretary of the Union and College Union (UCU), told BBC Radio 4’sToday programme. “We think that this bill itself is a serious threat to freedom of speech and academic freedom on campus.”

She added: “We think that it is an incredibly over-exaggeration of issues in order to push this through."

When asked about former home secretary, Amber Rudd, having an invitation to speak at an event at Oxford University retracted due to the Windrush scandal, Ms Grady said there were “far more serious” threats to free speech among university workers.

She claimed staff were facing job losses “because their research agendas don’t align with what the university wants” and others on precarious contracts having to “to align their research agendas, again, with what university wants”

“These are genuine threats, not people who already have very privileged jobs not being allowed to speak in an event 30 minutes before,” Ms Grady said.

UK universities have said they share the government’s commitment to free speech on campus - but said any new measures must be “proportionate”.

A spokesperson for the Russell Group, a group of leading universities, said:  “Our universities have always protected the right to have free and open discussion of challenging or controversial ideas.” 

They added: “It is vital that any further changes or additions to an already complex system are proportionate, protect university autonomy and avoid creating unnecessary or burdensome bureaucracy.”

Last month, the group vowed to protect free speech on campus, adding their institutions already facilitate “free and frank intellectual exchanges”.

A spokesperson for Universities UK - which represents 140 institutions - said: "It is important that the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is proportionate - focusing on the small number of incidents - and does not duplicate existing legislation or create unnecessary bureaucracy for universities which could have unintended consequences."

On Tuesday, the Queen’s Speech set out government plans to introduce new laws on freedom of speech at universities.

The Department for Education (DfE) said registered universities and colleges in England will be required to promote and defend freedom of speech and academic freedom under the proposed legislation.

For the first time, students’ unions at universities would be required to take steps to secure lawful freedom of speech for members and visiting speakers under the measures in the Bill.

This follows controversy over cases of the “no-platforming” of speakers - where they are refused a platform to speak - on campuses, including of Ms Rudd.

The new Bill also covers the creation of a free speech champion at regulator the Office for Students (OfS), with the power to issue sanctions.

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said: “It is a basic human right to be able to express ourselves freely and take part in rigorous debate.

"Our legal system allows us to articulate views which others may disagree with as long as they don’t meet the threshold of hate speech or inciting violence. This must be defended, nowhere more so than within our world-renowned universities.”

He added: "Holding universities to account on the importance of freedom of speech in higher education is a milestone moment in fulfilling our manifesto commitment, protecting the rights of students and academics, and countering the chilling effect of censorship on campus once and for all."

In a statement, Jo Grady from the UCU said the government was “using freedom of speech as a Trojan horse for increasing its power and control over staff and students”.

An OfS spokesperson said: "Free speech and academic freedom are essential elements to effective teaching and research.

"Universities and colleges have legal duties to protect both free speech and academic freedom, and their compliance with these responsibilities forms an important part of their conditions of registration with the OfS.

They added: "We will ensure that the changes that result from proposals expressed in [the] Queen’s Speech reinforce these responsibilities and embed the widest definition of free speech within the law.”

Additional reporting by Press Association

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