Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Written Evidence Submitted at the Committee Stage of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill by Professor Dennis Hayes, Director, Academics For Academic Freedom (HEFSB21)

Academics For Academic Freedom (AFAF) is the leading campaign group defending free speech and academic freedom in the UK. Since our foundation in late 2006, our members have more experience of the threats to free speech and academic freedom than any other organisation in the UK. It is this experience we draw on here and we hope you will find our comments helpful in discussion and reviewing the proposed legislation.


1. AFAF welcomes the government’s recognition of a free speech crisis on campus.

2. ‘Confidentiality’ clauses in disciplinary proceedings must be removed or secret censorship will be the norm on campus.

3. Bringing student unions under the legislation is a positive step as they are integrated into management.

4. The right to criticise university management must be part of the legislation.

5. Academic freedom cannot be restricted to an academic’s ‘field of expertise’.

6. Mandatory Training on controversial topics must be replaced by open debate.

7. Academic freedom should be seen as an enhancement of free speech and not as a separate freedom.

8. All staff and students at universities as well as visiting speakers must have freedom of speech.

1. AFAF welcomes the government’s recognition that there is a real crisis of free speech on campus. The proposed legislation has already created an important debate about the role of legislation and the role of academics and whether these are in conflict. Many academics and think tanks, with less experience than AFAF, now support legislation to ensure that academics have free speech. The question is – Can you legislate for free speech or is that intrinsically to remove freedom and replace it with an instruction? AFAF tends to the latter opinion but hopes that the committee will consider the following points to help make the legislation as good as legislation can be.

2. It is often the case that universities, the staff unions and student unions argue that there are only a few cases where academics or external speakers are ‘no platformed’. AFAF’s much cited and influential The ‘Banned’ List reveals that many more people face attempts to ban them. This creates a chilling climate on campus in which many more people self-censor. In AFAF’s submission to the 2021 JCHR consultation on freedom of expression in universities, we make the point that there are many more cases in universities where academics and students face disciplinary proceedings that are ‘confidential’. Often, they do not know who is accusing them of something, or indeed, of what exactly that is. Even trivial matters can lead to charges of gross misconduct. Going public can lead to further disciplinary charges. The proposed legislation could look at the role of confidentiality clauses or the secretive world of censorship on campus will continue.

3. Bringing student unions under the legislation is a positive step (s2 of the Bill). Even though they are technically independent organisations they have effectively become part of management in universities. They participate on most committees and governing boards and have influence on management, the curriculum and on the adoption of policies. Their censorious practices were well documented by the online current affairs magazine, Spiked, in its Free Speech University Rankings and in a follow-up report by the think tank, Civitas, on Academic Freedom .

4. Free speech must be ‘free’. Staff should be able to criticise management. This could be explicitly stated. (As an example of this in a formal document see the 1997 UNESCO Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel (s27) where the right to criticise the institution and system in which you work is seen as an important aspect of academic freedom.)

5. The restriction of academic freedom to an academic’s ‘field of expertise’ in the Bill (s1 A 1 6) is too narrow. University managers are all too happy to allow academics freedom within their subject, but this stifles criticism across disciplines and across the university. Management have no ‘field of expertise’ so, ironically, their possible support for this clause would silence them. The definition of academic freedom here weakens the existing legislation.

6. The Bill does not deal with ‘mandatory training’ about controversial issues imposed upon academics and other staff. This is one of the most censorious aspect of the contemporary university that demands uncritical training in ‘Unconscious Bias’, ‘Intersectionality’, ‘Critical Race Theory’ and related political propaganda. This training is often promoted by human resource departments with no real understand of their origin or meaning. External bodies working with universities – such as Stonewall, Athena Swann and Advance HE - uncritically promote political projects and stifle debate. AFAF’s view is that all such ‘training’ should be undertaken through debate as becomes a university.

7. Free speech and academic freedom should not be crudely distinguished as a ‘civic’ freedom and a ‘professional’ freedom something that may be an unintended consequence of the talk of an academic’s ‘field of expertise’. Without free speech, criticism and debate academics would not know what to research and free speech and academic freedom should be seen as a continuum. Because society values free speech it expresses this fundamental value through the employment of people to take free speech to its fullest extent and pays them to research and write about their ideas.

8. Academics, external speakers, administrative and technical staff, managers and students in a university community should have free speech. The lists of who is free to speak in the Bill (s1 A4 2 and s2 A4 2) are welcome but must not be interpreted as narrowly applying to academics and students. The university is a model for wider debate in society and no one on campus should have their freedom of speech restricted.

Professor Dennis Hayes for AFAF,

13 September 2021.


Prepared 17th September 2021