Clause 5 - Regulation of duties of registered higher education providers

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:30 pm on 20th September 2021.

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Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education) 5:30 pm, 20th September 2021

I beg to move amendment 54, in clause 5, page 6, line 39, at end insert—

“(4) The OfS must ensure that the ongoing registration conditions of each registered higher education provider that is eligible for financial support include a condition requiring the governing body of the provider to report to the OfS each year on the number of events that have been cancelled following a complaint about the opinions held by a person due to speak at the event.”

This amendment would require higher education providers to report to the OfS each year the number of events that have been cancelled following a complaint about the opinions of the speaker, as part of OfS registration conditions.

It is a pleasure to see you back in the Chair, Sir Christopher. The amendment is straightforward. It is a shame that the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings is not present, because I know that such amendments are quite close to his heart.

In the debate on amendment 73, we expressed concern about the burden and responsibility being placed on the sector, which we felt was inappropriate because that measure could not be applied. [Interruption.] I welcome the right hon. Gentleman back to his place. We believe there should be some means of quantifying data, which is important to understanding the scale of the issue. One of the problems has been in trying to recognise the nature and extent of the claimed problem. Our amendment seeks simply to ensure an annual registration or report detailing the number of cancelled events following a complaint.

As I mentioned in debate on amendments 72 and 73, we have to be careful about the burden of bureaucracy being placed on the sector, and appreciate that institutions already have a similar duty—the Prevent duty—as part of what is termed the “accountability and data return”. On that, I point out that the last results of that input showed that 99.8% of external speaker events went ahead, which suggests that the system is working largely as planned.

It reminds me of that great commercial many years ago from one of the beer companies. An individual passing through the offices hears the phone ringing and thinks, “That’s strange. It sounds like one of those old Bakelite phones. I’d better look in the office to see what’s going on.” He walks in and sees dust-covered furniture there. He finds the phone, dusts it off and answers, saying, “You’ve got the wrong number.” As he leaves the office, the sign reads “Carlsberg Customer Complaints Dept.” There is a little bit of that with this. How many will we actually see go through this office?

The data has been cited so often in our debate, but we have to ask how much of a problem this is in terms of events. There are increasing claims of self-censorship from witnesses and Government Members, but the data shows that 99.8% of external speaker events go ahead and suggests that the system is working. That leads directly to the quantifiable evidence of no-platforming issues. Professor Grant, whom we heard from in evidence, made it clear that

“It is not about the process of inviting people on to campus and worrying about no-platforming and cancel culture. The data there says that it is a non-issue.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 13 September 2021; c. 120, Q259.]

The events data will also help to rebut claims made by the likes of Professor Kaufmann, who, oddly, claimed:

“The no-platforming incidence is really the crux of the issue, which the Bill will address.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 13 September 2021; c. 90, Q184.]

It is hard to address something that, clearly, hardly exists. The Government’s own data from the Office for Students shows only a tiny percentage of cancellations. That is the only report that was available. In 2017-18, it showed that of 62,000 events, just 53 were rejected, or about 0.1%. The cancellation of some of those events had nothing to do with people’s views.

Where evidence is available, there is little evidence of a big problem. According to the Russell Group, the figures were 0.09% of all events cancelled in 2017-18, 0.23% in 2018-19 and 0.21% in 2019-20. The organisation Wonkhe did its own survey of 61 student unions, which showed that just six of 10,000 events were cancelled.

The amendment would also have the benefit of addressing the concerns raised by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s regulatory policy committee, which said:

“The evidence underpinning the proposed intervention and its intended effects is not strong.”

The committee supported the Department presenting

“concrete and well-founded examples of the ‘chilling effect’ and the consequences in those circumstances.”

That is what we want to see from the Government.

In the evidence sessions, a couple of witnesses talked of the effects of the Bill becoming apparent over the next 10 years. I am thinking particularly of Professor Goodwin. Well, 10 years is a long time to wait for something to appear. I do not think that any of us have the patience for that. Members will see from our amendments that we wish to review this regularly and within a period of time after the Bill becomes law to see its progress and whether it is doing any good or the burdens are causing considerable financial costs and other issues on campuses.

Of course, it takes time for Bills to embed and for change to be seen, but we do need to see some sort of evidence to support the approach. We are proposing amendment 54 for that reason. We believe that it is vital and in all our interests that there should be quality data to illustrate the nature of any issue, if there is one out there, and perhaps also its scale. As I have said, the numbers we have so far suggest that there is not. That is why we believe that it is important that amendment 54 is agreed to.

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

As we have heard, the amendment seeks to ensure that registered higher education providers who are eligible for financial support are required to report to the Office for Students each year on the number of events that have been cancelled following a complaint about the opinions held by a person due to speak at an event. I agree with the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington that we need to be careful about the bureaucratic burden that would potentially be placed on the sector. However, I have already made a commitment to this Committee to take away the point about reporting and whether we need to go further in terms of our ask on the face of the Bill. We do, however, have to ensure that we are not duplicating existing information requirements under the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. Under section 8 of that Act, the OfS must ensure that the ongoing registration conditions of each registered provider include certain conditions relating to the provision of information to the OfS. This section has been implemented by the OfS through registration condition F3, which applies to all registered providers, not just those that are eligible for financial support from the OfS, commonly called approved fee cap providers.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

I thank the Minister for giving way; she is being very generous. Can she explain why the OfS does not appear to have been reporting regularly in the last few years?

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

The hon. Gentleman makes a point about the previous activities of the OfS, whereas today we are focusing in this Bill on freedom of speech. This is a new set of requirements, with a new director, that will be coming into force, and they will be doing an annual report, as we have already discussed.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

To come back on that point, this is a genuine and sincere question, and it would apply to anyone in the Minister’s position—I appreciate that she has been in the role for 12 or 15 months or so; I cannot remember, but it would apply to her predecessors as well. Since 2017-18, there has been a rising concern in certain circles about an issue. If it was possible to get that data in 2017-18, why has it not been asked for since? I would have thought that that was incumbent on the Department for Education, and on the Minister and her predecessors.

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

The OfS did publish data around no-platforming, but as we heard from several of the witnesses who appeared before the Committee, no-platforming is just the tip of the iceberg. It is the chilling effect that we are dealing with in the Bill. To minimise that, and focus just on no-platforming, is to fail to understand the gravity of the issue that we are trying to tackle.

The governing body of the registered provider is required to provide the OfS with such information as it may specify to assist the OfS in performing its functions. The registration condition also requires providers to take such steps as the OfS may reasonably request to co-operate with any monitoring or investigation by the OfS, which may include providing explanations or making staff or documents available. In addition, following Royal Assent to the Bill, we will fully expect the OfS to consult on the detail of the new registration conditions relating to freedom of speech, in accordance with the statutory provisions on consultation in section 5 of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.

This process will enable the OfS to best understand what is required from the providers in order to comply with the new conditions, including by way of reporting and information. Adding a further separate information requirement to the 2017 Act would cause duplication with section 8 and the existing registration conditions and could also increase bureaucracy. As I have said throughout the Committee stage, I will commit to take away the issue of reporting and seeing how we could go further.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

I had hoped to speak for a moment against the amendment but, before the Minister concludes, I draw the Committee’s attention to the written evidence that was submitted by Professor Kaufmann, I believe after he gave his verbal evidence. He confirmed that the number of cancelled events is tiny—just a handful among some 10,000—and he gave us some very interesting survey data about the much deeper and widespread crisis in our universities of the chilling effect of self-censorship.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Minister of State (Department for Education) (Higher and Further Education) 5:45 pm, 20th September 2021

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. That point was laboured by many of the witnesses we saw in evidence. As I said to the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington a moment ago, this is much more than an issue of dealing with no-platforming; we are trying to address the chilling effect.

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

I am slightly confused. The Minister is saying that the OfS has been collecting the data, but why has it not been reporting on it? The difficulty with the chilling effect is how quantifiable it is. This is about hard data and events that have been cancelled or no-platformed. The amendment would provide hard data, rather than reliance on some mystical ability to mind-read or judge how chilled someone feels in a particular environment.

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

I heard the hon. Lady, but yet again the Opposition are failing to grasp the severity of the problem we are trying to deal with, and so honour our manifesto commitment to squash the issues with free speech on our campuses. Those issues are much more entrenched than simply no-platforming. We have heard that from various sources, academics and students alike, who have told us that they have felt curtailed in their ability to speak out on certain issues, to teach certain topics, and so on.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

I will be delighted to hear more. I hear the Minister and the point made by the hon. Member for Congleton. I want to repeat the words of Professor Kaufmann, who was a star witness for the Government, if we may use terms like that:

“The no-platforming incidence is really the crux of the issue, which the Bill will address.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 13 September 2021; c. 90, Q184.]

Those are his words, not my words, which is why I am asking—as was put differently by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle—why that data has not been available for the past few years. The reason it was not being reported was that there was clearly no issue.

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

I think it is quite clear, from my own words, that the Government do not feel that no-platforming is the crux of the issue; the issue is a chilling effect. We have been very open about the fact that the number of no-platforming incidents is low, but the Bill is about the broader issue of the chilling effect.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way on the issue of the chilling effect, which I described earlier as the fear that pervades many of our universities. That was made clear by the witnesses who came before the Committee. Dr Ahmed said:

“You can distinguish between hard censorship and soft censorship…Soft censorship is where there is not any regulation, but people know—people sense it themselves, because they know that if they say this, or they say that, or if they present these views, they will be regarded adversely. If they are a student, they might be ostracised.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 7 September 2021; c. 9, Q13.]

That fear affects academics and students, and it is damaging the calibre and quality of our universities across the land, which is why the Minister is right about the chilling effect.

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

I agree with my right hon. Friend, but I fear that we are slipping into a debate on the necessity for the Bill itself, which we have already had at great length on Second Reading. I close my remarks on the amendment.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

I hear the Minister. I believe that the amendment was a constructive suggestion, and we would have liked it to have been formalised in the Bill, but I will not press it to a vote. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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

The Office for Students is the regulator for higher education in England and as such it has a vital role to play in ensuring that our universities and colleges continue to be spaces where views can be freely expressed and debated, without fear of repercussions. The OfS regulates English higher education providers by way of registration conditions. The current registration condition requires higher education providers registered with the OfS to ensure that their governing documents uphold certain public interest governance principles. Those include principles that relate to protecting academic freedom and taking reasonably practicable steps to secure lawful freedom of speech. Therefore, the OfS already has experience with freedom of speech and academic freedom.

To protect freedom of speech and academic freedom to the fullest extent, we need to create a new mandatory initial and ongoing registration condition in the Bill. Clause 5 amends the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 to provide the legislative framework for the creation of the new registration conditions. Proposed new section 8A of the 2017 Act requires the OfS to ensure that the registration conditions of higher education providers include certain specific requirements. They must include a condition that the institution’s governing documents are consistent with its freedom of speech duties and that it has adequate and effective governance arrangements to secure compliance. They must also include a requirement that the governing body of the higher education provider complies with its duties under new sections A1 to A3 of the 2017 Act, as inserted by clause 1 of the Bill. Finally, in the case of approved fee cap providers, a particular category of registered providers, the ongoing registration condition must include a requirement to keep the OfS informed of their student unions.

Clause 5 will ensure that the registration conditions relating to freedom of speech and academic freedom are aligned with the duties imposed on higher education providers by the Bill. The OfS will be able to ensure compliance with the new registration conditions by using its powers of enforcement, such as the power to impose monetary penalties. The creation of these new, stand-alone registration conditions will highlight the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom. It will make the obligations of higher education providers more up front and it is therefore a central part of how the Bill will work. I urge that clause 5 stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Sir Christopher, I do not wish to say any more on this clause; I am willing to let it pass.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I am sure the Committee will be delighted.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.