The bills announced in the Queen’s speech in each session are the lynchpin of the parliamentary year. But they are easily lost from sight, separately and entirely, as the political cycle progresses, and they are displaced by a host of other news and events.
So, for the next several months, ConservativeHome will publish a short guide, most Sunday mornings, to each bill in this year’s Speech: what it is, if it is new, its main strengths and weaknesses, and if it is expected. sooner or later.
5. Higher education bill (freedom of expression)
What it is
The bill “will strengthen the legal obligations of higher education providers in England to protect freedom of expression on campuses across the country, for students, scholars and visiting speakers.”
Is divided into three parts, of which the most significant are the first two. The first part places new duties of freedom of expression on universities and student unions. The second applies these to the Student Office, within which a Director of Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom will be established.
The Department of Education is in charge of this legislative reform, which makes changes to four previous laws of Parliament. It got its second reading last week.
Gavin Williamson started the debate and Michelle Donelan closed. As Minister of Universities, the latter can be expected to lead the government during the committee stage of the bill.
Transferred or a new invoice?
Currently under consideration.
Essentially, that freedom of expression in higher education for both academics and students is threatened, the evidence of which consists of several surveys (see here, for example) and individual incidents, such as Amber Rudd not being invited when she was supposed to speak at Oxford University, and the treatment of academics at Edinburgh University other University of Cambridge.
These outbursts can be seen as incidents in a culture war, many of which are disputed in a less dramatic way. The right wing tends to argue that freedom of expression on campus and elsewhere is threatened by radical norms about language and behavior, imposed by “cancellation,” social media, and groupthink. The debate has spread to the left about trans; see the regular Radical column on this site for more information.
The most vocal opposition to the bill comes from the left, but there is also something from the right. The summary of the case from the left is, firstly, that there is no convincing evidence that freedom of expression in universities is threatened and that, secondly, the bill will protect Holocaust deniers, racists and the anti-vaxers. There are also concerns that it could weaken free protest.
The right has a mixed series of reservations. One is that the bill goes too far, because it empowers the state to set more conditions for independent institutions. Another is that it doesn’t go far enough, because both academics and students need broader protections than existing legislation, such as the Equality Act, gets in the way.
The coalition of voters who returned Boris Johnson’s Conservatives with an 80-seat majority will like the taste of this bill, and given the toxicity of the debate within the left about trans people, there will be some support in some parties for the claim that freedom of speech in universities is threatened, even if those parties oppose the bill, either in principle or in detail.
Labor watched his back on second reading – presenting a reasoned amendment that referred to “the need to guarantee legal protections for freedom of expression and academic freedom”. This may reflect a nervousness that the broad position of the left is contradictory: after all, one cannot support restrictions on free speech and at the same time claim that there is no threat to it.
Controversy index: 7/10
That the bill’s policy favors the government (the measure is certainly striking) does not guarantee that it will be met. The broad threat to freedom of expression, for students and academics of different political and religious convictions, cannot be rejected by parliamentary legislation. It is important that supporters of the bill take this into account.