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OfS to act to secure free speech for students with proposals on new free speech complaints scheme

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The Office for Students (OfS) has today published proposals on how students, staff and visiting speakers will be able to complain to the OfS about restrictions on their lawful free speech at a university, college or students’ union, and so seek redress for any loss that they have suffered as a result.

The proposed free speech complaints scheme, which will be free to use, forms part of wider proposals to secure free speech within the law, including academic freedom, in English higher education. The OfS is also consulting on how it will regulate students’ unions on free speech matters for the first time.

The free speech complaints scheme consultation proposals include:

  • Who can make a free speech complaint, and what they can complain about
  • The complaints the OfS would be able to consider
  • How the OfS will review free speech complaints and actions that it could take if a complaint is upheld, including recommending financial compensation for the person who made the complaint
  • How the OfS plans to publish information about complaints that it receives.

Under the proposed scheme, someone can complain to the OfS about a loss that they have suffered because a university, college, or students’ union has not taken steps to secure their free speech within the law. The OfS is proposing that individuals should if possible raise their concerns with the relevant university, college, or students’ unions first, to give it an opportunity to put matters right. Once that process has concluded, or (if sooner) after 30 days, a complaint could be made to the OfS.

Students’ unions will need to take steps to secure legal free speech for students, staff and visiting speakers under new legislation, and will need to maintain a code of practice to support this. The new legislation will require the OfS to play a direct role in regulating students’ unions on free speech matters, for the first time. The OfS is keen to hear from students’ unions, students, higher education providers and others interested in free speech to help it to shape its approach. The proposals include:

  • Maintaining a public list of the students’ unions that the OfS will regulate
  • Providing guidance for students’ unions about their new legal duties on free speech
  • How the OfS will monitor students’ unions to ensure that they are taking steps to secure free speech within the law
  • How the OfS will consider imposing fines on students’ unions that do not comply with their new legal duties on free speech.

Commenting on the consultations, the OfS’s Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom, Arif Ahmed, said:

‘Our proposed free-to-use complaints scheme, and regulation of students’ unions on free speech matters, mark an important step towards securing free speech within the law on campus. This includes free speech within the law for every student, whatever viewpoint they may choose to express.

‘Freedom of speech and academic freedom are fundamental to a high quality education. Students and staff are entitled to teach, learn and research in a culture that values vigorous debate, including discussions on difficult or uncomfortable topics.

‘However, there are now persistent and widespread concerns that many in higher education are being silenced. For instance, this year’s National Student Survey found that one in seven higher education students in England felt unable to freely express their views. And that silencing may fall disproportionately on those who are most vulnerable.

‘We are keen to hear from students, students’ unions, the universities and colleges we regulate, and anyone else with an interest in freedom of speech, as we take this work forward. We are interested in views about our approach to regulating students’ unions on free speech matters.

‘We are also interested in views about how our new free speech complaints scheme should work. We particularly welcome feedback from those who might wish to use the scheme.’

The OfS’s proposed complaints scheme is expected to come into force on 1 August 2024. From that date the OfS also expects to be required to monitor and regulate how students’ unions comply with their new free speech duties.

The OfS will be running a series of webinars for students, students’ unions, universities, colleges and others interested in this work to support their responses to the consultation.

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