By Theo Burman
Durham Students’ Union has issued a statement criticising the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill as “politically motivated”, in which it outlined several criticisms and proposed amendments which the SU submitted to Parliament.
The new legislation would restrict Students’ Unions from denying premises to someone based on their “ideas, beliefs or views” during meetings and events, and would give greater powers to the Office for Students to enforce these restrictions.
The statement published on Durham SU’s website, written by the Oppourtinites Officer Jack Ballingham, questioned the motivations behind the Bill, arguing that the government’s suggestion that “no-platforming” is an issue worthy of national legislation “is simply not backed up by the facts”, citing Office for Students data that indicated less than 1% of external speakers were rejected nationally last year.
Ballingham also revealed that, during the 2020-21 academic year, no applications for events involving guest speakers received by Durham SU were rejected.
Another criticism levelled at the Bill was the increased costs it would place on SUs. It is estimated to cost over £40 million, with no money being provided to help SUs with the implementations. Durham SU questioned, “whether this is a good use of institutional funds in the Higher Education (HE) sector, at a time when the government is axing financial support for teaching qualifications, and the arts, humanities and social sciences, and universities are forced to close courses.”
One of the most significant parts of the Bill proposes a “Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom” to work at the Office for Students, a position that would have new power to regulate SUs and their approach to freedom of speech laws.
This position would be appointed and answer directly to the Education Secretary. The SU took issue with the position’s transparency, claiming that “there is no provision for the accountability of the Director, and no requirements stated for their qualification”.
“There is every reason to believe the appointment of this new Director will be just as, if not more, politically motivated, carrying the very real danger that whoever holds the role will function as the government’s own political officer within the higher education sector.”
In evidence submitted at the committee stage of the Bill’s reading, the SU proposed several amendments, including greater transparency for the Freedom of Speech Director position, and funding provisions for “organisations which cannot bear the financial burden” of the changes the Bill demands, including event security.
Durham SU also asked for the Bill to “clarify the status of constituent colleges and common rooms in universities” in order to “reflect the differences across the UK higher education system beyond these in Oxford and Cambridge”, after it was announced that Oxbridge colleges would be exempt from the Bill’s regulations.
Unlike other universities, student groups at Oxford and Cambridge are organised by college common rooms. The government has argued that it would be “overly bureaucratic” to expect them to follow the new rules.
The SU endorsed amendments proposed by the National Union of Students, which outline a complaints system students and staff could use for issues regarding freedom of speech, and place a cap on the maximum penalty the Office for Students would be allowed to issue.
In the evidence, the SU also outlined the state of Freedom of Speech policy at Durham, saying “it is exceptionally rare that events in Durham face barriers beyond those in the interests of ensuring the health and safety of attendees and speakers, and both the SU and University have repeatedly upheld the right of students and visitors to hold and express their views.
“Across student culture at Durham there is clear, vocal and lively debate. Even where this challenges boundaries, both the community and the organisations in question have a robust, but fair and appropriate, approach to free speech, as exemplified in the SU’s Free Speech Policy.”
The full statement, along with the SU’s recommendations, can be read here.
Image: Amana Moore