My Lords, I too am delighted to speak in a Motion on the humble Address. I need to declare several interests. First, I am chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. I want to caveat that by saying that I am speaking in a personal capacity. The only reason I need to say that is because the remit of the EHRC is so wide that one falls into the trap of saying something that impinges on its remit, so I had better get that in. Since I will be speaking on higher education, I also need to declare that my husband is a working academic and I myself have an affiliation with the Policy Institute at King’s College London.
I am extremely pleased that we are finally starting to see some of the recommendations of the Augar review come into play; that is very welcome. I particularly note the Government’s proposals for a lifelong loan entitlement, which will be taken forward in the higher education Bill. I also welcome the emphasis in that on social mobility, as well as the opening up of funding for a greater variety of skills-based training. As someone who completed her last degree when knocking 40—note I do not say my final degree, I just say the last one—I think the principle must be upheld that, as our economy changes, so too must the skills of the workforce.
Far too many people do not have an opportunity for on-job training and recent figures show that this is most marked among people who are not graduates, are ethnic minorities or are older and disabled. We also know from the popularity of online courses that people do indeed want to improve their credentials throughout their lives as a means of personal advancement. But currently, only those able to pay are able to do so. Of course, it is grossly unfair that taxpayers in the workforce are penalised when they wish to take up further learning later in life as a means of changing skills, perhaps towards a different career.
I also support the Government’s aim to retain the UK’s leading role in global league tables, but in this area I associate myself very much with the remarks of the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, on the careers of junior academics in particular.
While our higher education institutions are undoubtedly benefited by their autonomy, it is fair to say that students in those institutions have been rather let down by the paltry offering they have received during the pandemic. To burden students with the same level of fees for such suboptimal learning—which still continues in some institutions—is to be deeply regretted. I hope that the Office for Students has taken note of this breach of the contract between the provider and the consumer. Autonomy should not mean a freedom to rip off students when so much public subsidy from taxpayers is involved.
I want to say a word or two about the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill as well. I too share the Government’s overall concern that free speech is being increasingly impinged upon in our academic institutions. I was not alone in being troubled by the treatment of Professor Kathleen Stock by the University of Sussex in its handling of her case. She was attacked simply for exercising her academic freedom, although Sussex did belatedly try to repair the damage she suffered. I am also aware that she is not alone and that other academics in different disciplines self-censor or avoid challenges in areas where their work might not conform with the existing consensus. I broadly support the principles of the Bill but note that we have heard concerns in the other place that the Bill might go too far in its permissiveness of what I think has been described as “hate speech”.
I want to briefly clarify that point. Hate speech does not have legal meaning, although it is generally understood to be forms of expression that incite violence, hatred or discrimination against other groups or people. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights delineates the law on freedom of expression. Whether or not hate speech falls outside the protections of Article 10 and is unlawful will depend on the context of what is said and when. I would not be overly concerned about measures to protect academic freedom and free speech on the basis that it will be a licence for other types of unwanted behaviour, such as harassment, as those protections will continue to be extant under the Equality Act 2010. As ever, I hope that detailed scrutiny will lead us to a balance, and I accept that competing rights will be engaged in this Bill, and so we shall have to look at it very carefully. On that note, I have to say that I broadly welcome these two pieces of legislation.