Report stage amendments to the free speech bill

Should we ban Beijing’s institutes from university campuses in the name of free speech - or would doing so amount to sinophobia?

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill reaches report stage in the commons on Monday, and there’s a whole clutch of amendments from the government, the opposition and the backbenches to get across.

The China Research Group (CRG) of Conservative MPs has warned that 29 Confucius institutes – that offer students opportunities to learn Mandarin and take part in cultural exchange programmes – promote propaganda that “rewrite the realities” of the regime’s human rights abuses and are monitored by the Chinese International Education Foundation, an organisation affiliated with China’s ministry of education.

The group’s amendment would create a duty for universities to report the funding and activities of any “partnership with an overseas organisation to deliver foreign language, culture or exchange programmes or courses” and would give ministers the power to “terminate” partnerships with them over freedom of expression concerns.

More generally for the government, Nadhim Zahawi has introduced an amendment which would compel universities to reveal sources of overseas funding if the OfS believes that it is affecting freedom of speech or academic freedom. The government also proposed to remove the “within their field of expertise” qualification on the academic freedom protection that was in the original version.

Much of the bill is inspired by a couple of Policy Exchange reports on freedom of speech, but another amendment – submitted by the “common sense group” of MPs led by South Holland and The Deepings MP John Hayes – is cribbed from a third PX report that we looked at on the site last September. It proposes to modify the Equalities Act 2010 that would allow freedom of speech to work as a defence against accusations of harassment. But EHRC guidance already says as follows:

The harassment provisions [in EA10] cannot be used to undermine academic freedom. Students’ learning experience may include exposure to course material, discussions or speaker’s views that they find offensive or unacceptable, and this is unlikely to be considered harassment under the Equality Act 2010.”

As higher education legal expert Smita Jamdar points out here, if the law already recognises that academic discussions are unlikely to be harassment and the CRG’s amendment applies to conduct that would be actual harassment, then it risks making that harassment lawful. Presumably the government will decline this one, but don’t count on it.

There’s a small collection of government amendments on the costs of security at speaker events that I have looked at separately over on Wonkhe SUs, having spent a day a couple of years ago at the National Archives in Kew looking at the last time government tried to legislate on the issue during John Major’s government.

In an interview with PA News today, Labour Shadow secretary of state Bridget Phillipson says the government should not “pick fights with students” and says that the bill is a distraction from ministers’ “failure on the wider challenges” in the sector:

I think people understand that students want to protest, want to express their views, and that’s right, that’s not a new thing. I don’t know why Government ministers are surprised that 18-year-olds finding their voice want to express their views quite strongly. The irony around the freedom of speech discussion is that it feels quite often that ministers are keen on freedom of speech unless you happen to disagree with them, at which point it’s a problem.

A Labour amendment would place restrictions on appointments to the OfS Director of Free Speech and Academic Freedom Role, requiring that anyone appointed must not have made donations to a political party in the last three years. The opposition has also proposed a sunset clause, measures to expand the definition of academic freedom to include trade union activity, and measures to ensure that freedom of speech is not inhibited by non-disclosure agreements. Neither will pass.

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