Clause 1 - Duties of registered higher education providers

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:01 pm on 16th September 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Minister of State (Department for Education) (Higher and Further Education) 2:01 pm, 16th September 2021

I beg to move amendment 1, in clause 1, page 3, line 27, after “providers” insert “and their constituent institutions”.

This amendment is consequential on NC1.

Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Labour, Bradford South

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendments 2 to 26.

Government new clause 1—Duties of constituent institutions.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Minister of State (Department for Education) (Higher and Further Education)

Government amendments 1 to 26 and new clause 1 concern the position of certain colleges of universities such as the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Durham. The amendments will ensure that, in these collegiate universities, colleges are subject to the new strengthened freedom of speech and academic freedom duties in the same way as the registered higher education providers themselves. The amendments will restore a legislative position similar to the one in place before August 2019, when constituent colleges of collegiate universities in England were directly responsible for meeting the duties set out in section 43 of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 to take reasonably practicable steps to ensure freedom of speech for their students, speakers, members and visiting speakers.

The Bill sets out new and strengthened duties; in particular, it introduces direct routes for individuals to seek redress when they believe they have suffered loss as a result of a breach of the duties, so it is vital that action can be taken directly against the body that is responsible, including when that is a college. As the types of college in scope of the amendments may enjoy a large degree of legal independence from their parent provider, it is possible that, without these amendments, a registered provider could demonstrate that they have met their duty in new section A1 of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 to take steps that are reasonably practicable for it to take to secure freedom of speech, but a college could still act in such a way as to restrict someone’s lawful freedom of speech.

My officials have held discussions with some of the main institutions that will be affected by the amendments, in particular the Universities of Cambridge and of Durham, and they have indicated that they would welcome the amendments. They do not think that they will result in a burdensome change in practice for their colleges, since in general their colleges have continued to maintain the codes of practice relating to the freedom of speech duties that they were subject to until 2019.

The wording used for the definition of “constituent institution” in new clause 1, in proposed new section A3A(4) of the 2017 Act, reflects the wording that applies to those bodies subject to the Prevent duty and the coverage of the complaints scheme operated by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education. A college that is required to comply with the Prevent duty will, therefore, also be subject to the freedom of speech duties, which is clearly sensible, and the coverage of the higher education complaints schemes will be consistent.

In addition, amendment 3 makes it clear that student unions at approved fee cap providers that are subject to the new duties in clause 2 do not include student unions at colleges. Colleges fund their junior and middle common rooms and, to that extent, can exert a lot of control over their activities. Those groups do not own or occupy their own premises or run the booking the systems, so imposing a freedom of speech duty on them seems to be unnecessary and overly bureaucratic. We do not believe that including them in the provision is necessary, as the freedom of speech duties on the colleges will apply to the activities of their student unions. I hope it is clear that the amendments are necessary for the Bill to work as intended, to ensure that all key bodies in our universities play their part in securing freedom of speech on campus, and to ensure that where they do not, those who suffer detriment can seek redress from whomever is responsible, whether that is a university or one of its colleges or student unions.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

It is a pleasure to see you back in the Chair, Mrs Cummins. Overall, I have to say that I am really delighted—I think all the Opposition Members are—that the Minister has listened intently to what we have been calling for in our speeches on Second Reading, in Committee and during the witness sessions. We have been calling for clarity. It was clear that the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 made a similar mistake by omitting the likes of Oxbridge colleges and constituent institutions.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

I am sorry to be sarky, but this is therefore the second time in major legislation that the Department for Education has discovered that it does not understand the structure of higher education in this country. Does my hon. Friend find that a bit worrying?

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

The lack of corporate knowledge or rock of collective experience that legislation should be based on is really surprising. I would have thought that such errors would be corrected and noted, and always and forever be related to anything in the higher education realm. I would have also thought that there were many in this place—there may be more of them on the Government Benches—who have been to the likes of Oxbridge or Durham and who would be more familiar with them. I do not mean that lightly; I think it is factually true. Personally, I did not attend them, so I am not so familiar with how those institutions work in terms of their governance. It is a simple point, but the error should not have been repeated.

On Second Reading, the shadow Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend Kate Green, forcefully made the point that numerous collegiate institutions affiliated to a central university would be outside the scope of the legislation in its current form. It is easy to think about existing Oxbridge-type institutions, but what about future-proofing the higher education sector and the changes that may affect affiliate and collegiate associations between higher education providers? That important point was picked up by Members on both sides of the House, and rightly so. It is good to see the Minister taking the feedback on board, and I hope that we will see some further evidence of that arising from yesterday’s sittings.

I have a small point to raise in relation to amendment 3 and an apparent exemption. The Minister spoke about the MCRs and JCRs at the likes of Oxford, but I do not know why they should be exempt. Any groups associated with a university or a higher education provider, whatever its size or shape, should be covered. If the legislation is honest in its intent, why should any be excluded from it? What justification could there be for preventing a student body at an Oxbridge college from being covered by the Bill?

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

Is it not in fact troubling? The JCR system is operational at only a few universities, so a few universities will end up being exempt, or have student bodies that are exempt, while the vast majority will not. There is clear inequity there. Will it not prompt other bodies to be unnecessarily created, or reconfirm the unfair and often undeserved privileged status that some so-called elite universities have in this country?

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

I thank my hon. Friend for his well made point. It could indeed reinforce those existing privileges, or lead to a complete breakdown of the SU structures and change to institutional structures too, with disaffiliations and so on. We must be careful about the message that that sends out.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

I can understand why some organisations or bodies that associate with universities—the Bullingdon club, or whatever—are excluded, but what is the rationale for the exclusion of JCRs?

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

I thank my right hon. Friend for posing that question. It is question that I think we Opposition Members would like to hear the Minister give a more explicit answer. It was not clear to me in her remarks, and it seems that it was not clear to my right hon. Friend either. It seems a bizarre exemption that they should not be covered.

Think of the outrage of the former Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, when Magdalen College middle common room—not that I am familiar with that establishment or its make-up—did something shocking by taking down a picture of the Queen. Were it the Lucian Freud version, I could perhaps understand it. The MRC members chose to do that, and it was their expression of free speech. Had they done something of greater significance though, it would not come under the remit of the Bill. I hope the Minister will address that important point.

Overall, I am pleased that the Government have been listening and have proposed this change to the legislation, because it is important. However, I ask the Minister to specifically, explicitly address why it is that middle and junior common rooms should be excluded.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

I very much welcome this amendment and addition to the Bill. Perhaps colleagues will permit me a moment of reflection on a personal experience that makes me feel so strongly about this.

In 2016, I was invited to speak at an Oxbridge college. I will not name it, because I think that the situation is somewhat embarrassing for it. I was asked, as chair of the all-party parliamentary pro-life group, to speak to Oxford Students for Life. As I began speaking to around 100 people in a room of a similar size to this one, with large glass windows at the back, an official rushed in and said “This meeting must stop. You are causing offence to students in the social room on the other side of the quad.” The chair of Oxford Students for Life said “But they can’t hear us,” and the official replied, “Well, I have been told that I must stop the meeting.” In the end, we came to a resolution whereby, if all the curtains were closed on those large ceiling-to-floor windows, the students in the social club would allow us to carry on. The whole situation was just ridiculous.

I subsequently wrote to the vice-chancellor, who said it not his responsibility, and that as this was an Oxbridge college, he could not take any action. Eventually, I found somebody in authority to whom I could write and explain that this really was an unacceptable experience and situation for that group of students. Of course, the irony was that they had asked me to speak about work that I had done in Parliament, all of which is in Hansard anyway. I was not going to say anything that was not already in the public domain. Eventually, I secured a full apology, but what really troubled me was that, in my preparation for this Bill Committee, I spoke to an Oxford academic who told me that a similar experience had occurred not a year or two later in the same Oxbridge college.

That is why we need to ensure that we have these organisations—these constituent institutions—clearly included in the Bill, because, to an extent, there is a sense that they are self-governing. In this respect, they have to understand that they have the same degree of responsibility and accountability as any other university institution.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Minister of State (Department for Education) (Higher and Further Education)

We did indeed listen to the sector and Members after the Bill was first published, and we identified a gap. These technical amendments will close that gap, which could otherwise have meant that some individual colleges would not be in scope. Since the Bill introduces new routes of redress for individuals who believe that their lawful freedom of speech or academic freedom has been improperly restricted, it is vital that the right institutions are held responsible.

To reiterate the points that I made in my opening speech, colleges fund their junior and middle common rooms. To that extent, they can assert a lot of control over their activities. Such groups do not own or occupy their own premises or run the room-booking systems, so imposing the freedom of speech duties on them seems quite unnecessary and overly bureaucratic. The amendments are necessary to ensure that the new duties apply to all appropriate bodies on campus and that the routes of redress in the Bill are available for all who need them.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

The Minister is being generous in giving way. Essentially, what the Bill saying is that the colleges can exert pressure on their middle and junior common rooms and somehow influence behaviour and how free speech is permitted and managed within those forums. It is a delegation to the colleges to do that. But what the rest of the Bill is saying is that all other student unions, bodies, clubs and affiliates are responsible to the university and have to comply. Are we saying that there will essentially be a two-tier system for how the legislation will work?

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Minister of State (Department for Education) (Higher and Further Education)

What we are saying is that the junior and middle common rooms are very different from student unions, and we have to ensure that the legislation strikes the right balance—a point made by the hon. Gentleman when we debated the last amendment on bureaucratic burden.

To conclude, colleges have a vital role in the protection of freedom of speech.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Minister of State (Department for Education) (Higher and Further Education)

I really am going to conclude now, as we must move on. Colleges have a vital role in the protection of freedom of speech, which is a fundamental value for all of society, but especially in our world-leading higher education providers, as I am sure hon. Members agree.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 12 Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill — Clause 1 - Duties of registered higher education providers

Aye: 9 MPs

No: 5 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 5.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Amendment 1 agreed to.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

I beg to move amendment 44, in clause 1, page 3, line 28, after “education” insert—

“and in the conduct of research”

This amendment would ensure that higher education providers must promote the importance of academic freedom in the conduct of academic research as well as teaching.

This is another example of a small detail that we wish to amend. As we said throughout yesterday’s proceedings, we want to keep to a minimum any damage that the legislation might cause to our institutions, the viability of student unions and, indeed, the entire sector. The amendment equates protecting freedom of speech and academic freedom, not just for teaching, but for the conduct of research as well.

The point that we want to stress and to have reflected in the Bill is that all too often, observers of the higher education sector think purely about education in the form of instruction, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown said. Teaching can be instruction, of course, but in the realm of higher education institutions in particular, there is differentiation when it comes to research.

Research is so important; it is the fundamental differentiator in institutions’ success and reputations. The amendment would add the words

“and in the conduct of research” because research is important not just to society but to the development of our understanding of humanity and more. Dr Ahmed said that academics should be allowed to pursue

“lines of research that they think might be fruitful”.––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 7 September 2021; c. 13, Q22.]

That is why we want to ensure that, as we heard in evidence, research is at the core of the sector. It needs to be included where possible, to remind everyone of just how central it is to the debate.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

This discussion follows on quite well from debate on amendment 59, tabled by the hon. Member for Congleton, in that it seeks to close a loophole for masters and PhD students. That is what amendment 44 is intended to resolve. Our discussion about academic freedom and freedom of speech applied to those involved in teaching. The amendment nips off that loophole so that the provisions can apply to masters and PhD students.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. In response to a point by the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings about the detransitioning of research at the University of Bath, Professor Whittle said in evidence that

“had Bath addressed it properly, they could have done more to say, ‘This needs sorting and this does before we will consider it.’”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 7 September 2021; c. 41, Q75.]

The amendment would incorporate innovative research under the academic freedom duty, and that would push the likes of the University of Bath towards further exploring how such research proposals could be encouraged. It is a very simple amendment, but we hope that, in the spirit of how we have tried to co-operate, the Government will accept it.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Minister of State (Department for Education) (Higher and Further Education)

This amendment seeks to extend the duty of higher education providers to promote the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom so that it specifically applies in the conduct of research, as well as in the provision of higher education more generally. The duty set out in proposed new section A3 of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, created by clause 1 of the Bill, is a new one. It requires a provider to promote the importance of free speech within the law and academic freedom throughout its provision of higher education. This is a general duty that intends to drive a positive tone on campuses across the country, promoting a culture in which everyone on campus can express their lawful views, and in which academics feel safe to question and test received wisdoms and put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

The amendment is specifically meant to address cases in which an individual is sometimes a student and sometimes a teacher. As a PhD researcher their activity falls under academic freedom, but as a student it falls under freedom of speech. An individual can hold two different roles at two different times depending on what they are doing, and that problem is what we were trying to resolve with this amendment.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Minister of State (Department for Education) (Higher and Further Education)

I think that the next part of my comments will address the hon. Member’s concerns. A key element of this duty is to promote academic freedom for academic staff. It is widely understood and set out in international case law that academics should expect that their academic freedom is protected for any research they seek to undertake, as well as in the design and delivery of their teaching and wider comments or writings that they issue. The duty to promote the importance of academic freedom in the provision of higher education will therefore cover research undertaken in that context, noting the high-level nature of the duty. However, I have listened to hon. Members today, and while this will be made clear in the guidance, I shall commit to take this issue away and see whether further clarity would be of assistance.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

I have heard what the Minister has to say. I take her at her word and look forward to having further conversations and discussions on this issue. I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: 33, in clause 1, page 3, line 28, at end insert—

“(2) For the purposes of this section, ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘academic freedom’ do not extend to any statement that amounts to the denial of genocide.”—

This amendment ensures that the objective of securing freedom of speech and academic freedom do not cover those who make statements that amount to a denial of genocide.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 13 Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill — Clause 1 - Duties of registered higher education providers

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 9.

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 1, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.