Amendment 26

Part of Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 7:45 pm on 7 December 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 7:45, 7 December 2022

As I said, it builds on the existing approach to regulation of constituent colleges.

Amendments 27 and 28, also tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, seek to reduce the scope of Clause 9. Amendment 27 would allow the Office for Students to seek information only where the OfS considered that there were reasonable grounds to suspect a breach of the freedom of speech duties. Amendment 28 would remove overseas commercial partnerships from the definition of “relevant funding”, meaning they would not be within scope of the clause.

New Section 69D(1) will require the OfS to monitor the overseas funding of registered higher education providers and their constituent institutions so that it can assess the risk which the funding may pose to freedom of speech and academic freedom in the provision of higher education. The only way that the OfS can monitor the funding is if it has the necessary information. The power to require such information is linked to the registration condition that already exists under Section 8(1)(b) of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017; that is, condition F3 as described in the regulatory framework that I have already mentioned. Clause 9 is not about the speculative investigation of individual contractual arrangements; it is about routine monitoring of relevant information, at a sufficient level of detail, but no more than that, to allow the OfS to monitor the risk to freedom of speech.

As I said before, Amendment 27 would limit the power to require information from providers to where the OfS considered that there were reasonable grounds to suspect a breach of the freedom of speech duties. That test sets a very high bar which could arguably never be met. The OfS would not be in a position where it could suspect a breach because it would not have evidence to support that. However, at the same time, the amendment would mean that it would not be able to require information that may provide such evidence, so this would be circular, resulting in the inability of the OfS to obtain information on overseas funding. That in turn would mean that the OfS would not be able to carry out its duty to monitor the risk to freedom of speech that overseas funding may pose. This would mean that new Section 69A would be ineffective and would subvert the whole point of the overseas funding clause.

I should add that the effect of the drafting of this amendment would not be to prevent commercially sensitive information becoming subject to freedom of information requests through the regulator having requested it, which I understand the intention of the amendment to be, noting that the amendment does not refer to that and focuses simply on suspicion of breach. In any event, approved fee cap providers are themselves subject to freedom of information requests, so disclosure of information to the regulator would not result in new exposure to that legislation, and, of course, the OfS already holds sensitive information about providers as part of its overall regulatory role—for example, financial information—so this will not be new.

As for Amendment 28 and the removal of commercial partnerships from the scope of new Section 69A, the Government are of the view that the funding received from such partnerships could pose a risk to freedom of speech and academic freedom. Accordingly, if we do not include commercial partnerships in new Section 69A, we would be leaving a large gap.

The OfS will decide on the level of detail that it will need as regards the information that it will require from providers, liaising with the sector as need be in order to determine that. The OfS will of course consider how to handle any sensitive commercial information that it requires to be provided, but, as I have said, it already holds sensitive information, so this would not be new.

I note that the noble Lord references in his explanatory statement that the clause may force a violation of commercial contracts not governed by UK law. My understanding is that commercial contracts are likely to contain a standard clause dealing with disclosure to regulators, so disclosure under the Bill would be covered by that.

As for the particular situation of a university press, which my noble friend Lord Patten of Barnes referred to, such a body will be in scope only if it is legally part of the provider. In that case, it would not be an independent trading entity. If it chooses to have as its legal status to be a department of a provider, as I am aware is the case for Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press, it inevitably brings itself within scope of regulation as a part of that provider. I would be more than happy to follow up with my noble friend if he would like to progress that conversation or requires any further clarification on that point.

With regard to the point by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, about the National Security Bill, as we have heard from earlier amendments, the Government are keen that there is consistency across legislation. That applies in this case also. The noble Lord also hinted at the regulatory burden. He will be aware that the Office for Students is required, when performing its functions, to have regard to the need to protect the institutional autonomy of providers and to the principles of best regulatory practice, including that it should be transparent, accountable, proportionate and consistent.