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What would be the impact of the freedom of speech bill on colleges?

Further education colleges are used to being overlooked and underfunded – but the free speech bill will have serious consequences for the sector, argues Julian Gravatt
This article is more than 1 year old

Julian Gravatt is Deputy Chief Executive at the Association of Colleges

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill creates annoying, confusing and unnecessary rules for those running further education colleges – so what else is new?

Two things.

First there is the fact that no-one involved in this debate – MPs, peers, college leaders, potential visiting speakers – seem to realise that colleges are covered by this latest law. We’re a sector that’s used to being under the radar but this time, we’re positively invisible.

Second, it’s a threat to the very existence of college students’ unions.

Is it FE you’re looking for?

Taking the invisibility point first, this is a law that, if passed, will apply to 409 registered providers, 155 of whom are FE colleges, plus their students’ unions. The debate in Parliament on the need for the legislation has focused mainly on older universities, a few high profile cases and issues relating to full-time residential degree-level students. Whatever your views on the need for these changes, I challenge you to find a single piece of evidence that it’s needed in colleges.

You won’t find anything from the Office for Students. They dutifully count 19,407 speaker events in their latest Prevent monitoring report but, as they explain in footnote 4, they don’t ask colleges. Ofsted monitors Prevent.

Go to the Ofsted website and I’m not sure there’s anything less than six years old on this issue or Prevent.

Ask the Association of Colleges which represents and promotes all of the colleges on the OfS register plus more who aren’t and I’m afraid to say you’ll draw a blank. As a college regulation specialist at AoC, I’ll confess I completely missed the fact that the 1986 free speech law applied to colleges for the first 22 years that I worked in the sector. The issue never came up in either of the colleges I worked in.

And college duties under the law were never mentioned by the parade of here-today, gone-tomorrow agencies that have told colleges what to do in the last 30 years. It took OfS to tell us. And – thanks to OfS – the 170 colleges who applied for registration in 2018 and 2019 all hastily created or updated policies to meet the E1 condition.

No debate about it

Sure, we knew that free speech was an issue in some of our neighbouring universities – but colleges are just different on this issue. Yes, they have external speakers but this is almost entirely part of the curriculum. Of course, there’s conflict and protests relating to speech and rights but these are typically between staff and management. But no, colleges don’t have a queue of famous controversial speakers queuing up to speak at their student societies.

And finally much as I’d love to see a flourishing debate culture, there isn’t the time, headspace or money. AoC is working with NCFE and University of Derby researchers to study enrichment in colleges – but the casual way in which funding for extracurricular activities and evening classes has been cut over the last 15 years makes this like growing flowers in the desert.

At the risk of being a bit flippant, if anyone in DfE really wanted to develop a debate culture in the 155 colleges on the OfS register, why is there no allowance for debating halls in their model specifications for new FE buildings (the 2021 FE Output Specification)?

Very vexing

Moving onto my second point about the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill – it contains a small but serious threat to students’ unions in colleges.

SUs are small, voluntary groups in colleges involved in course representation, volunteering, sports and similar activities. All colleges have student governors – and sometimes unions are the stepping stone for this role. Here, as elsewhere, colleges have learnt something from universities and adapted their practice to a different environment.

But unlike universities, college students’ unions lack a legal envelope in the main. Students’ unions may have bank accounts or budgets, but they don’t have charity registration or trustees. The clause in the bill that could be used by cancelled speakers to claim damages is a threat to college students’ unions because, in an unincorporated association, it’s the individual who would be sued.

My first hope is that DfE will adjust the legislation on this point to exclude FE students in the way it has left Oxbridge Junior Common Rooms out of scope – and my second hope is that, if passed, vexatious claimants won’t notice it. But why create the legal risk? And for what purpose? To make voluntary activity in colleges a little bit harder?

So summarise, we have a bill that’s annoying, confusing and unnecessary. There’s nothing new in this – but shouldn’t we expect better?

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