It’s one rule for most SUs and no rules for Oxbridge

It may not surprise you to learn that none of the amendments to the Freedom of Speech (Higher Education) Bill put forward by the opposition have been accepted.

That doesn’t mean my note on those amendments was a complete waste of time though. Team Wonkhe’s David Kernohan – who’s something of a legislative process nerd – is always startled when government doesn’t amend bills in committee, but the issues that come up are generally the same ones that the Lords hold them to ransom over later on.

One set of amendments that did get approved was from the government’s side on constituent Oxbridge colleges. In the original Bill it wasn’t clear that the duties would apply to them, and so universities minister Michelle Donelan proposed a series of amendments to ensure they did.

But what was odd was that at the same time she proposed that the students’ unions attached to individual colleges at Oxford and Cambridge be exempted from the SU duties.

It’s even odder when you recall stories like this one about that photo of the Queen that was all over the news back in June – because it was about Magdalen College’s “Middle Common Room”, another name for the SU for postgrads at that college.

Anyway yesterday Labour has its chance to ask why, and Michelle Donelan argued as follows:

Since a bill introduces new routes of redress for individuals who believe that their local freedom of speech or academic freedom has been improperly restricted, it is vital that the right institutions are held responsible. Colleges do fund their junior and middle room and middle common rooms. And to that extent, they can exert a lot of control over their activities, as these groups do not own or occupy their own premises, or run the room booking systems. And so imposing these freedom of speech duties on does seem quite unnecessary and overly bureaucratic.”

Basically, Donelan argues two things there:

  • That JCRs and MCrs are unlike “normal” SUs because they don’t have their own buildings or run their own room booking systems. The problem with that argument is that neither do almost all SUs across the sector. Nothing special about JCRs and MCRs there.
  • That because Oxbridge colleges fund JCRs and MCRs, the colleges exert considerable control over those bodies. But not only is that true across the sector, as Lloyd Russell-Moyle pointed out – that’s partly as a result of a requirement on all universities to exert a level of control their SU embodied in the Education Act 1994.

When summing up, Donelan then went on to argue that:

It is important to note that student unions of constituent colleges are not classified as student unions in accordance with the Education Act of 1994.”

She is, quite simply, wrong about that. Section 20(3)a of the act makes clear that references to a students’ union in the legislation include an association or body which consists wholly or mainly of constituent or affiliated associations or bodies.

It’s why – as an example of the first one I searched for – under section 22(4) of the Education Act 1994 Balliol College Oxford has in force a Code of Practice to ensure that the affairs of its JCR and MCR are properly conducted in accordance with the requirements of the act.

That’s right. It’s one rule for most SUs, and no rules for Oxbridge JCRs and MCRs because, you know, the master can have a word over a tumbler of sherry or wherever.

The other argument given by Donelan was that the administrative burden for (the two) providers to give the Office for Students details of the SUs in constituent colleges, in addition to the central SUs at Oxford and Cambridge would be “resource intensive and disproportionate”.

To be honest, I can make a much better case on “resource intensive and disproportionate” when it comes to Basingstoke College of Technology SU, which by dint of the college being OfS registered for its HE provision, will for some reason be covered by the act. Their SU – an unincorporated association governed by some seventeen year-olds keen on running a RAG week – are going to struggle to comply.

There is an easy way round this of course – just regulate SUs through the higher education providers as happens now over their finances and democracy in the Education Act 1994, but it’s not one the government is keen on for some reason.

Maybe now that Michelle Donelan has her new FE portfolio she’ll notice the yawning disparity here. Which reminds me – why is the proposed legislation called the “Freedom of Speech (Higher Education) Bill” rather than the “Freedom of Speech (Further and Higher Education) Bill” – the Education Act 1986 covered both sectors, after all.

Is the patronising idea that students doing things with their brain will have debates and need to speak their mind, but students doing things with their hands don’t need free speech? Whatever happened to that parity of esteem thing?

3 responses to “It’s one rule for most SUs and no rules for Oxbridge

  1. Almost as if it’s a terrible idea! Community-minded 17 year olds get hit with the full regulatory burden while some Cambridge SUs have sabbs and support staff and escape!

  2. Isn’t it actually “one rule for everyone” but not “two rules for Oxbridge”? The recognised SUs of Cambridge and Oxford would be treated the same way as at every other University. So for example at the University of Sheffield, the SU is covered by the act but the Residence Life teams are not subject to additional oversight. Is Jim seeking more regulation or less here?!

  3. Thanks Puzzled. Residence life teams are hardly analogous to SUs. JCRs and MCRs are SUs as per ED94, so why exempt them?

    As for your “more regulation or not” question, as I say above, there is an easy way round this – just regulate SUs through the higher education providers as happens now over their finances and democracy in the Education Act 1994.

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