Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Written evidence submitted by Benjamin Marler, Founder and Vice President of the Debate Society, Union of Students, University of Derby (HEFSB01)

Written Evidence for the Public Bill Committee - Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill 2021

Introduction:

I am the founder of the University of Derby's Debate Society and the University of Derby's Political Party Group system. I founded the two in the 2019/20 academic year whilst as a first-year student. I study Politics and International Relations, going on to the third year of the degree. I am submitting evidence to allow the committee to consider a student's voice and a voice from a student who has dealt with free speech matters;

The Debate Society was founded in 2019 by myself and two other students (who will not be mentioned for the sake of confidentiality) due to the lack of any political or debating society at the Union of Students (the university's students' union). The society is built on a simplified Westminster model, including an in-house "legislative and legal system", an evolving constitution and a debating element which is chaired by a "President Speaker" (a position that is a hybrid of Parliament's Speaker and Leader of the Commons). The Debate Society, whilst not as professional or prestigious as most debate unions across the UK, does pride itself on giving every student a place to express themselves freely and is committed to upholding the values of democracy, equality and human rights and individual liberty.

The Political Party Group System was founded in early 2020 by myself after repetitive failures of legacy party societies which often fell due to low funding and low engagement. The PPGs are "child societies" of the Debate Society mentioned above, and whilst overseen by the Debate Society's management team, they have their leaders and a high level of autonomy. Since their creation, whilst there is low activity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, several students have had significant praise for their establishment as it allows them to be part of a community of like-minded students, free to express their views among other party members.

Overall comments on the Bill

I welcome any legislative action that seeks to bolster and improve any of the Articles of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European Convention of Human Rights. However, I believe the Government's belief that legislative action, on the matter of higher education and free speech, is the best approach is misguided as it bypasses working with the institutions, instead of forcing civil liabilities on them, with a bill that is, to a degree, unclear and hazy.

Is there a free speech issue in universities? From personal experience with students, it is a small but growing issue that students face, and whilst conservative students mostly face the issue, liberal students are also impacted, as well as a degree of socialist students. Therefore, the best approach for the Government is not one of implementing liabilities and restrictions on student institutions, but rather working on the ground with multiple governmental and educational institutions/individuals on an approach and campaign to promote the importance, positive history, and the benefits of freedom of speech and tolerance.

However, should the Government continue with this Bill, I strongly urge the Government to consider how to help every stakeholder on how to properly balance freedom of speech with the other articles of the ECHR/HRA and the Equality Act, whilst also working on a campaign to raise awareness of the British Values at universities, that Conservative Party promoted under both Cameron and May.

On the provision on the OfS Director of Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom, I am satisfied with the role and would hope to see the future holder of the role constructively works with the university community in promoting freedom of expression.

I am happy that an independent complaints scheme is being setup, as it will greatly benefit students, and student societies, in raising complaints that would otherwise be ignored by the student’s union/university. However, as I have acknowledged below in my recommendations, the complaints scheme must guarantee (1) anonymity and (2) a limited protection for any person that raises a complaint from any consequence or punishment from the education institution.

Recommendations

(Legislative)

1. The act extends explicit protection to debating, political and any relevant student society and group
The act only goes to the extent of individuals or the institutions themselves, ignoring the student groups that invite visiting speakers, not the university or student unions who are just there to review and approve. I suggest the act covers relevant student groups to provide them with protection from consequences and that they also have a right, as a group, to complain to the Office for Students.

2. The act extends to adding explicit protection to students, similar to what Part A1, lines 7 to 36, does for academic staff
The act goes on in Part A1 to provide several lines of protection for academic staff who, understandably, need it. However, the Bill does also need to provide similar protection to students to be able to: question and test the opinions of their lecturers and peers, be protected from consequence and the right to express themselves.

3. That Part A3 includes more provisions than just promoting free speech and include other "British Values" including democracy, individual liberty and tolerance, which are all essential to the upkeep of free speech

a. Extend this also to establishing a similar part to student unions

The reason for recommendation 3, as I am sure the committee and the Government are aware, is that freedom of speech in a liberal democracy needs the support of essential pillars, including the British Values of democracy, individual liberty, and most importantly, tolerance. With tolerance primarily, the Government and several MPs have expressed their concerns about reducing tolerance, and so providing the provision in this Bill will help fix that.
For recommendation 3, part a, it is even more critical for student unions to adopt the exact requirement for this as they liaise between the university and students and the "go-to" for student concerns.

4. That under the Complaints Scheme that an amendment is added to allow for anonymous complaints, as well as a limited protection for complainants from any consequence from the education institute
This will help all individuals, especially students, to raise serious complaints of infringement on their freedoms without feeling pressure from the risk of being expelled, punished or receive any other consequence.

(Guidance and other)

1. Require the Office for Students and the Universities Minister to work with relevant student societies and groups to provide better support and guidance to student societies on balancing free speech and equality provisions under the Equality Act 2010 and other relevant laws.

As was mentioned in the impact statement that supplemented the Bill, the Government's mentioned "option 2" would have provided near-crystal clear clarity on the distinction between the Equality Act 2010 and other equality law provisions, and the freedom of expression provisions under the Human Rights Act 1998 and other relevant laws. However, as mentioned in my above recommendations, student societies - the ones who are on the metaphorical front line of this Bill - will often make mistakes in balancing equality and freedom of speech which will either leave to civil claims available in this Bill or civil claims of harm due to inequality/hate speech.

2. Require the Government to work with relevant governmental bodies and educational institutions to get a UK-wide census on the political makeup of students and teaching staff
The Government, many MPs and Lords, and various individuals have often described universities as left-wing socialist student factories, which is not what I nor any other good-standing student can agree with. However, it is essential to acknowledge that on university campuses and wider student communities, students on the left-wing of politics have a louder and more prominent voice, which gets wrongly translated to socialist factories. That is why I recommend a UK-wide university anonymous census of students and staff to uncover the political demographics of students, which will not only help provide clarity for lawmakers in the making policy such as this Bill but will also help student institutions to provide better services to conservative, liberal and socialist students.

Yours Sincerely,

Ben Marler

13 July 2021

 

Prepared 13th September 2021