Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Written evidence submitted on behalf of Beds SU by the Executive Committee, University of Bedfordshire ( HEFSB14)

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

The following submission is sent on behalf of and with the endorsement of the elected Executive Committee of Beds SU, the representative body for students at the University of Bedfordshire as established by the Education Act 1994.

This submission outlines the opinion of elected representatives of the student body and issues which will foreseeably affect Beds SU and comparable students’ unions should the government implement this Bill.

1. Lawful freedom of speech is not in question

2. Multiple regulator issues

3. Providers unregulated by OfS

4. Impact of potential compliance measures

5. Complaints and disciplinary matters

6. Unintended consequences

7. Affiliation

8. Duty of care and social media

1. Lawful freedom of speech is not in question
Beds SU is already committed to freedom of speech within the law and does not have a "no platforming" policy, or evidence of a freedom of speech crisis on campus: internal records
[1] show that no events have been cancelled at Beds SU due to restrictions on content. Beds SU has constantly taken positive steps to facilitate events that take place each year.

Neither do we have reason to believe that there is a freedom of speech crisis on a national scale. A survey of students’ unions carried out by WonkHE’s Taking the debate forward project in December 2020 found that just 6 events from almost 10,000 involving an external speaker in academic year 2019-20 were cancelled, just 0.06% - mainly for failure to follow basic administrative processes [2] .

As such, Beds SU is unsure as to the necessity of this legislation.

2. Multiple regulators
Beds SU – as with other unions – is already regulated by the Charity Commission and the University of Bedfordshire who regulate us under the Education Act 1994. A third regulator is excessive and counterproductive.

There also appears to be conflict/overlap between the regulation suggested in the Bill and that already undertaken by the Charity Commission. For example, as a registered charity we already have to produce explicit criteria on which funding is allocated to student groups and report this transparently and publicly.

Beds SU also regularly reports to the University’s Governing Body by virtue of our funding arrangement ( i.e. the University is our main funding body). We do not believe that there is a lack of oversight to be addressed.

3. Providers unregulated by OfS / students of regulated providers hosted by unregulated providers
There is a particular issue with
unregulated providers, and therefore the students’ unions that would be "captured" by the Bill. As drafted, the regulation applies to students’ unions at OfS registered providers that are eligible for financial support. It is not clear if the Bill will be expanded to include providers who are not OfS registered and how they will be regulated comparatively to ensure consistency, without unforeseen unfair advantages over OfS registered providers. This could cause a discrepancy in experience for Students’ Union members studying at partners on courses validated by or franchised from a registered University ( e.g , studying an HE course at an FE provider which is not necessarily registered with the OfS ).

4. Impact of potential compliance measures
The regulation creates a vast amount of additional work for unions which is likely to be a burden and take us away from our core duties. Beds SU would potentially need
additional resources just to navigate this legislation and all it will entail. The government has not considered the full range and affordability of costs for student unions should this bill be enforced.

The funding and capacity and capability of Beds SU to undertake these duties is predominantly dependent on the negotiation between the SU and the provider to secure funding in advance of each academic year. Without a duty on the provider to resource the SU appropriately to carry out the duty there is a material risk that they will be unable to do so , and any fines levied risk falling back onto Higher Education Institutions if unions are unable to fund.

5. Complaints and disciplinary matters
The University and the Students’ Union are separate entities and must remain as such, especially given the well-established role of students’ unions as the representative body for students at the establishment (Education Act 1994), often providing support for students engaging with u niversity complaints processes. Students must not become confused about which body they are complaining about or to , as well as what they can complain about : we do not consider that the current government proposals offer sufficient clarity in this area.

Again, t here also appears to be significant conflict/overlap between the proposed complaints scheme suggested in the Bill and that already provided by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, accessible to most students once they have exhausted the university’s internal complaints procedure. These processes are already confusing for students trying to access them – with many students requiring support from their union to navigate these processes – so the addition of an additional scheme is excessive and counter-productive.

6. Unintended consequences
There is a fear that smaller s tudents’ unions are unlikely to undertake proactive and progressive work if they fear fines and/or direct threat from the legal tort.

At Beds SU we already have a robust process for guest speakers , that we work in partnership with the University to implement, which can already be off-putting for students and speakers alike. For example, our institution already requires speakers to declare their date of birth so that some basic background checks may be undertaken, with many potential speakers (particularly non-academic or amateur speakers, e.g. experts from industry) considering this request to be an infringement of their personal privacy.

Beds SU wants to see increased engagement in our student-led societies and invest heavily in grant provision to support their aims and objectives. A Bill of this kind could have adverse effects on our efforts by creating additional administrative burden for such student-led groups, actively reducing speakers and events on campus.

7. Affiliation
As currently drafted, the objective is securing freedom of speech within the law which includes securing that "affiliation" to
the students’ union is not denied to any student society. There are potential issues with this provision. In many providers, not least the universities of both Oxford and Cambridge, it is the university which handles, regulates, and provides support for all clubs and societies, whilst other students’ unions regulate and are responsible for all clubs and societies under their provider. There is not sufficient clarity to know how the proposed bill will accommodate all the different scenarios it intends to cover.

8. Duty of care and social media
We believe that many ‘free-speech incidents’ on campus also play out on social media and that the ‘cancel culture’ stems from social media rather than university.

In conclusion, Beds SU remains uncertain of the necessity for such legislation, operating in a heavily regulated environment already. We are concerned the torts that this Bill brings could be exhaustive and crippling to us at Beds SU and other comparable students’ unions. Far from improving freedom of speech on campus, these measures risk creating an unnecessary burden that will reduce the number of successful events held featuring external speakers.

Our recommendation is that the government does not implement this legislation.

September 2021


[1] Beds SU records date back to January 2016

[2] https://wonkhe.com/media-release-radical-student-led-proposals-will-secure-and-champion-campus-free-speech/

 

Prepared 16th September 2021