Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Written evidence submitted by the Association of Colleges (HEFSB26)

Dear Sir/Madam

Higher education (freedom of speech) bill

The Association of Colleges represents further education and sixth form colleges in England. 165 FE colleges are registered higher education providers on the Office for Students lists which enables them to teach higher technical and other higher education courses . Colleges are within the scope of the bill which applies equally to all universities, colleges and providers on the OfS register.

We have the following comments and suggestions on the bill

· None of the free speech cases cited by government and others concern colleges

· Including colleges within these regulations creates unnecessary burdens on them and will divert the free speech regulator from their core duty

· If there was a problem in future, the charitable regulator of colleges is the DfE and they could act. Also unlike universities and other registered HE providers, HM chief inspector has a legal duty to inspect colleges under the 2006 Education and inspections Act.

· Almost all student unions in colleges are unincorporated associations. None are big enough to be registered charities and, like college Junior Common Rooms of Oxford and Cambridge universities, have excepted charity status.

The Association of Colleges discussed these points with Department for Education officials before the legislation was fixed. The points are partly acknowledged in the impact assessment at Page 22 https://bills.parliament.uk/publications/41494/documents/245)

The government’s main argument is that it would be too difficult to exclude FE colleges and their student unions from the legislation and that Parliament’s approval in 2017 for the Higher Education and Research Act indicates a settled will for all higher education providers to be treated equally. We have two answers to this point:

· DfE presented complicated amendments to Parliament in September to exclude Junior Common Rooms. Where there is a will, there is a way.

· Parliamentary scrutiny of the 2017 higher education legislation was cut short by the dissolution motion in advance of the 2017 general election.

AoC has two suggested amendments to the legislation to deal with the issues set out above:

· To clause 1, A1 (1)

Insert "that is not also a Further education corporation" after registered higher education provider

· To clause 1, A2 (5) add "studying higher education courses"

To make clear that colleges only need to draw their free speech code of practice to the attention of their HE students (average cohort 300-400) rather than to all their students (average cohort 10,000)

· New clause A4

The governing body of a registered higher education provider that is also a further education corporation should have regard to the guidance on free speech

· To clause 2, A4(1)

Insert "and is not also the union at a further education corporation" after financial support (line 2)

· To clause 3, A6 (c)

Civil proceedings may not be taken against individual officers of student unions that are unincorporated associations

Association of Colleges
20 September 2021


Prepared 21st September 2021