Colleges denied chance to speak out over free speech legislation

Colleges and FE student unions have been left out of discussions about new free speech legislation

Colleges and FE student unions have been left out of discussions about new free speech legislation

Colleges and FE student unions have been left out of discussions about new free speech legislation which would leave them open to legal action for “de-platforming” controversial speakers.

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is currently being considered by a special committee of MPs, before the legislation goes back to the wider House of Commons.

Universities, the National Union of Students’ higher education vice-president and the Free Speech Union set up by right-wing commentator Toby Young were all invited to give oral evidence to the committee.

Yet MPs have not heard evidence from any FE representatives and a committee spokesperson said that oral evidence sessions for the bill “have concluded”. It means FE providers and student unions will not get the chance to speak.

“The decision as to who is invited to give oral evidence is made by the committee itself following discussions by the whips,” the spokesperson said, adding that written submissions can still be emailed in.

MPs on the committee include DfE minister Michelle Donelan, former Conservative skills minister John Hayes and ex-DfE special adviser Richard Holden.

When asked whether it had consulted the FE sector about the legislation, the Department for Education (DfE) said it had engaged with the sector following the publication of its policy paper.

However, it refused to name any providers or representative bodies with which it had engaged.

A DfE spokesperson did point out that the bill committee had heard from Office for Students (OfS) chief executive Nicola Dandridge, “and the OfS’s remit is all registered providers, which includes FE colleges delivering HE”.

‘Appalling’ government not giving FE chance to debate bill, says NUS

Salsabil Elmegri, the National Union of Students’ vice-president for further education, said she was “incredibly concerned my FE members have had their voices silenced”. Colleges and their student unions “cannot be ignored”, she added.

“It is appalling, given the lack of opportunities and protections for free speech in FE, that the government is not giving us a platform to talk about the issues that impact us.”

The bill allows a person to bring civil legal proceedings against an FE provider registered with the OfS, or a students’ union, if they deny the use of their premises to anyone based on their ideas, beliefs, or views. The college student unions which now could face expensive legal action are noticeably smaller than their university counterparts.

FE Week was able to find on the Charity Commission register, which students’ unions must sign if they have an income of at least £5,000 a year, just two college unions: Bradford College Students’ Union and Derby College Students’ Union.

DfE says legislation will not be a ‘disproportionate’ burden

Association of Colleges deputy chief executive Julian Gravatt tweeted last week: “170 colleges and their (unincorporated) student unions are covered by these new duties and face the same legal risks despite there having been few/no cases in the sector warranting the extension of regulation.”

An impact assessment for the bill said the government had decided against keeping FE providers out of the legislation as that “would make regulation for the OfS much more complicated going forward”.

As FE providers “already have to meet the current duties for all students”, the DfE believes “it should not be a disproportionate burden for them to comply with the strengthened duties”.

Gravatt sarcastically noted that this would be “reassuring” to an “18-year-old T Level student in 2025” when they are facing legal action.

Anyone wishing to submit written evidence to the committee has until 23 September to send it in a Microsoft Word document to

Paragraphs need to be numbered, but pages should not be numbered. Essential statistics or further details can be included as numbered annexes, the committee said, but submissions should not exceed 3,000 words.

What will the freedom of speech bill mean for colleges?

The governing bodies of all higher education providers registered with the OfS must “secure freedom of speech” for students, staff and visiting speakers.

They, and student unions, must not deny use of their premises to anyone based on their ideas, beliefs or views and must produce a code of practice for running meetings and activities on their sites.

The government has acted after repeated instances where speakers have been prevented from speaking on campuses by people opposed to their views.

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