In May 2021, the UK government introduced the landmark Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill to encourage and “protect freedom of speech on campuses up and down the country, for students, academics and visiting speakers.”
The bill is set to bring in measures that require colleges and universities to register with the Office for Students, an independent public body and a higher education watchdog in England, to defend free speech and deal with unlawful “silencing.”
“This Bill will ensure universities not only protect free speech but promote it too. After all, how can we expect society to progress or for opinions to modernise unless we can challenge the status quo?” said Michelle Donalan, Universities Minister.
A section of educators and university administrators, however, say that the bill would add another complex layer to university governance. Members of the Russell Group, which represents 24 leading UK universities, argued that existing regulations already allow for sufficient academic freedom and urged the government to be “proportionate” in its planned legislation to promote free speech on campus.
The Bill requires universities to allow a regulator to issue fines for breaches.
Some free speech and rights campaigners have raised concerns that the bill might have an “opposite effect” by further limiting what is deemed acceptable in the scope of academic exploration in universities.
A spokesperson for Universities UK said, “It is important that the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is proportionate by focusing on the small number of incidents, while not duplicating existing legislation and creating unnecessary bureaucracy for universities which could have unintended consequences.”
Jo Grady, General Secretary, Union and College Union, said that the government is over-exaggerating threats to free speech in order to push new laws through.