Consensus statement: Freedom of speech and students’ unions, guilds and associations – next steps

Meg Price is President at Worcester SU


Lizzie Rodulson is President at the University of Surrey Students'​ Union


Kwame Asamoah Kwarteng is General Secretary at the University of Manchester Students Union


Sunday Blake is President at Exeter Guild of Students


Patrick O’Donnell is Union President at York University Students' Union

Following two (virtual) round table events held on Friday 6th November, we have now had the opportunity to consider both the verbal and written feedback received on the day, as well as comments and views submitted separately.

We’re now gathering evidence from SUs – please respond by close of business on Friday, 4th December.

We believe there is a will amongst students’ unions and those across the sector to make significant progress in strengthening practice to give confidence to students, institutions and the wider public about the role that student organisations should play in facilitating, celebrating and championing freedom of speech and debate on campus.

Across the sector, there is rightly a wide diversity of student organisations whose role, responsibilities and funding varies. However there is a considerable diversity of practice and interpretation of the law in the area of freedom of speech and SUs that is not necessarily justifiable on the basis of that organisational diversity.

Building on previous work on the relationship between SUs and universities, we think it should be possible to develop a national Code of Practice that students’ unions and their universities would be encouraged to sign up to, that would in turn form a component of the behaviours that the Office for Students might expect to see a provider embody in its “E conditions” (ie the Public Interest Governance Principles, with specific reference to academic freedom, accountability, student engagement, risk management: value for money and freedom of speech: The governing body takes such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech)

The work would have direct relevance to providers and their SUs in England but would be of relevance to the devolved nations.

Purpose

Students’ unions and their clubs and societies are an important facilitator of freedom of speech and debate on campus – but there are concerns that some students’ unions have been involved in (both directly and indirectly) the “banning” or “no platforming” of speakers whose opinions their student leaders do not agree with – as well as wider concerns surrounding support for student groups and campaigning activity. We will seek to refresh guidance on external speakers and SU events and set clear standards designed to secure the maximum possible level of diversity of viewpoints and debate and discussion on campus.

In addition we will seek to create a Code of Practice which operationalises an assumption that the Education (No 2) Act 1986 applies to students’ unions, create clear guidelines that set out how the costs of speaker events that require mitigations such as security costs will be met in order to relieve such a burden from individual societies, and make recommendations on the updating and revision of university codes of practice on freedom of speech – many of which may not have been updated significantly since the implementation of the 86 Act.

We envisage this work consisting of an evidence gathering phase, a technical phase and a proposal phase as follows:

  • Evidence gathering (Nov): Collecting examples of policies and practice in some specific areas of concern. See here for details.
  • Technical (Dec): Discussing, with sector experts, a potential code of practice that students’ unions would be expected to sign up to.
  • Proposal phase (Jan): Consulting with students’ unions, sector bodies and others.

Specifically, we intend to explore the following areas:

  • Establishing with clarity the way in which safeguards on freedom of speech embodied in the Education Act 1986 should apply to SUs;
  • The establishment of a working framework for the management of and regulation of student events involving external speakers that seeks to reduce any bureaucratic burden on students and establishes responsibilities for providing security and support;
  • Clarifying the right to protest against speakers and exploring where protest could breach student conduct rules on harassment.
  • Clarifying the limits that charity law places upon campaigning and political activity within charitable students’ unions;
  • Examining the way in which complaints procedures operate within students’ unions, with particular reference to external review of complaints that cannot be resolved internally;
  • Codifying expectations on SUs embodied within guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Charity Commission on freedom of speech;
  • Examining the interrelationship between complaints procedures owned and operated by higher education providers and students unions’ respectively;
  • Examining and setting practice standards on the affiliation/approval of and funding of student clubs and societies to ensure maximum political diversity, and exploring the interrelationship between democratic and governance considerations of such groups being formed.
  • Exploring and making recommendations on the ease with which students and the general public can obtain and compare information on students’ unions, their expenditure and activities;
  • Developing standards on the nature of the financial relationship between students’ unions and universities that ensure value for money for students.
  • Making recommendations on standards surrounding the role that SUs should play in advocating for or supporting students individually.

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