Clause 8 - Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee on 22nd September 2021.

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Amendment proposed (this day): 85, in clause 8, page 11, line 23, at end insert—

“(1A) A person may not be appointed as the Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom if the person has at any time within the last three years made a donation to a political party registered under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

(1B) The person appointed as the Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom may not whilst in office make any donation to a political party registered under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.”.

This amendment would ensure that the Director of Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom had not donated to any political party in the last three years and that they may not make any further donations to political parties for the duration of his tenure.

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Labour, Bradford South

I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following:

New clause 9—Appointment of the Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom—

“(1) The appointment of the Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom shall be subject to a confirmatory resolution of the relevant Select Committee of the House of Commons.

(2) The Secretary of State shall when appointing the Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom have regard to the views of an Independent Advisory Body.”.

This new clause would require the appointment of the Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom to be confirmed by the Education Select Committee, and for the Secretary of State to consult the Independent Advisory Body when appointing the Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom.

New clause 11—Review of the appointment process for the Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom—

“(1) The Secretary of State must conduct a review of the appointment process for the Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom within six months following the calling of a new Parliament.

(2) Any review conducted under subsection (1) must assess the suitability of the appointment process for selecting politically impartial candidates.

(3) The Secretary of State must lay the report of the review before Parliament.”.

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to review the appointment process for the Director for Freedom of Speech within six months following the calling of a new Parliament, and lay the report of this review before Parliament. The review must include an assessment of the suitability of the appointment process for selecting politically impartial candidates.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

I will just finish off my remarks on amendment 85 and new clauses 9 and 11. I remind the Committee that we believe there is a need for some other body to be involved in the process. We suggested that the Education Committee could be well disposed to carry out that role.

Our critical point is that maintenance of and alignment to the Nolan principles are important in the appointment of the director for freedom of speech. The approach of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education was raised, with its emphasis on skills and experience. I sense there is a bit of clear blue water between that approach and what has been proposed for the position at the OfS, which might align more with principles and values.

The key thing throughout has been the importance of credibility in this appointment. Many in the sector have questioned the trust, and that is something my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington addressed. Credibility is important; there is real concern across the sector—not just on the Opposition Benches—about this legislation, and particularly about the intent behind the appointment of the director of free speech.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 22 Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill — Clause 8 - Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom

Aye: 7 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 9.

Question accordingly negatived.

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

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

We have discussed this clause at some length. It causes us great concern and concern across the entire sector—to the universities, the University and College Union and the National Union of Students, as well as to existing bodies, such as the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, and to the Charity Commission. All our amendments to the clause have sought to ensure that the director is best equipped to deal with the difficult task that awaits them.

The chief executive of the Office for Students, Nicola Dandridge, likened the director of free speech and academic freedom to the director for fair access and participation. I am not convinced they are the same. This position is so important to the future direction of our campuses, although the director for fair access and participation is of course important, and we have had a person in post since the inception of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 and the establishment of the OfS, so that person predates the Prime Minister, his Government and the direction in which he is clearly taking us. However, while I appreciate the similarities and very much hope that the director of free speech has an equally positive effect and an impartial position, the clause as it stands creates a framework that favours the centralisation of power in one person, potentially with a lack of participation from the sector, which will remain silent on the appointment of the director. We tabled those constructive amendments to get the engagement and buy-in from the sector, which as colleagues have so eloquently said is absolutely needed now. We have heard that the Association of Colleges, for example, has not been consulted at all. There are many flaws in the approach that the Government have followed.

The debate has made it clear that the director will not be subject to a review mechanism, that the appointment of the director is subject to no political constraints and that the OfS and the director will be under no duty to promote good practice, making it increasingly likely that the role will be one of heavy-handed arbiter. It would seem, from the debate we have had, that there is to be no parliamentary oversight of, or accountability for, the role and that the director would be able to act solely of his or her own volition.

Professor Nigel Biggar confirmed all the Opposition’s fears, and it worth repeating what he said:

“I guess the Government do, given the legislation”,

want

“a director who has a certain partiality of that kind.”––[Official Report, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Public Bill Committee, 7 September 2021; c. 22, Q40.]

That is one of the most important sentences in all the evidence that we heard a couple of weeks ago. Voting for the clause begins the process of widespread and determined political interference in the regulation of the higher education sector. Lord Wharton’s appointment was just the beginning.

The clause will also be a large drain on the finances of higher education providers. The Government’s own impact assessment says:

“It is unclear how many staff would be required to support the OfS Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom and their renumeration package.”

The impact assessment goes on to detail the costs and benefits of the director, and claims an administration cost for the recruitment of a supporting team will be between £0.5 million and £0.8 million. Then, of course, there is the cost to students of not knowing whether to go down the route of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator or the Office for Students.

Although the costs may be considerable, the benefits are difficult to quantify, which is to say that the entire clause is a gamble that, following the Government’s rejection of all our amendments, is subject to no political accountability.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Minister of State (Department for Education) (Higher and Further Education) 2:15 pm, 22nd September 2021

We have already discussed the clause extensively, so I will keep my remarks very tight.

The new complaints scheme provided for by clause 7 will be overseen by the new director for freedom of speech and academic freedom within the Office for Students, and that director will oversee the free speech functions of the OfS. That means that there will be an individual within the OfS who has an undivided focus on those fundamental values in our higher education system, and they will play a public role in championing the value of free speech and academic freedom across the higher education sector.

That new high-profile role will demonstrate the importance of free speech and academic freedom in higher education and will empower individuals and providers to ensure that universities and colleges in England are places where freedom of speech can thrive for all staff, students and visiting speakers, contributing to a culture of open and robust intellectual debate.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Will the Minister confirm that the role will be a full-time appointment, and what will the tenure of the contract be?

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

As we heard in evidence, the role will be akin to the director for fair access and participation. The job description and all the terms will be published in due course—it would be premature to do that before the Bill becomes an Act.

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

Division number 23 Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill — Clause 8 - Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom

Aye: 9 MPs

No: 7 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 7.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.