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Freedom Of Speech Bill Could Cost Universities And Student Unions £48m

Freedom Of Speech Bill Could Cost Universities And Student Unions £48m
5 min read

Universities and student unions across the UK will have to pay burdensome legal insurance premiums to protect from 'vexatious' claims as a consequence of the government’s new Freedom of Speech Bill, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Higher Education has warned.

The premiums would form just one addition to a £48.1 million cost the Department for Education has estimated universities and student unions could face as a result of the new legislation over the next decade.

Across ten years, key financial burdens contributing to the price tag include: familiarisation costs, costs of complying with regulation and enforcement, administrative paperwork costs and the cost of updating and introducing new codes of practice for student unions.

Labour MPs have warned this will “take vital money away from teaching students and important research”.

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which is currently in committee stage, will see universities fined by the Office for Students if they fail to uphold legal responsibilities to free speech on campus.

The new legislation will also enable students, academics and visiting speakers to seek compensation from higher education institutions and student unions they believe have not upheld legal duties to facilitate free speech.

Speakers who believe they have been "deplatformed", if, for example, they are removed from events schedules following protest by students, could therefore seek compensation under the new law.

The proposed law has been described as “authoritarian” and “chilling” by Shadow Higher Education Minister Matt Western.

“The bill is going to result in the equivalent of ambulance chasing on our campuses,” Western told PoliticsHome.

“There will be lots of proposed or mischievous requests to speak or for organisations to come onto campus, who will then be denied, and that will then lead to them perhaps not being invited, and later legal claims.

“That's going to have two effects. One is a cost to institutions and student unions. Another, we believe, is that it will have the reverse effect of actually reducing free speech, as student unions and institutions will become seriously risk averse and actually closed down how they do the how they make speaking invitations to individuals and groups.”

Some student union presidents, alongside the National Union of Students, have echoed the shadow minister’s concerns.

In a submission to the Public Bill Committee scrutinising the new legislation, NUS Vice President Hillary Gyebi-Ababio stated: “I think a direct unintended consequence of the Bill could be that student unions would become more risk averse to inviting speakers. 

"They just cannot handle the prospect of having to pay lots of money in the case of litigation.”

Responding further to the estimated £48.1 million cost of the bill, Western told PoliticsHome: “Here we are at a time following the pandemic where student unions and institutions are really facing a difficult time financially, because they haven't had the same income over the last year that they would have had ordinarily.

“Some of the larger universities will have income revenue streams that they may enjoy from on campus through or cafes, and the like.

“But one thing that came out from the evidence sessions and then through the debate and Freedom of Speech Bill Committee, is not just the likelihood, but the absolute certainty that student unions are going to have to take out insurance to protect themselves from vexatious complaints against them by individuals or organisations.”

Bryn Harris, Chief Legal Counsel to the Free Speech Union, has refuted claims that the new Higher Education Freedom of Speech bill in any way risks compromising freedom of speech on university campuses.

Harris also believes student unions have nothing to fear from a legal standpoint, so long as the bodies do not engage in any “cancellations”.

“The only danger a student union faces of being sued under this bill realistically will be if they invite a speaker and then cancel them because of their views,” Harris told PoliticsHome.

“Yes, there’s potentially a danger to the student union if they do the wrong thing. But simply inviting a speaking itself isn’t going to involve any liability. Realistically, as long as student unions take a liberal approach and let events go ahead, everything will be fine, they aren’t going to be in danger.”

An amendment brought forward by Labour to scrap the power to take student unions to court from the freedom of speech bill was rejected.  

Defending the right to sue for compensation during a Public Bill Committee debate this week, Education Minister Michelle Donelan said: “The purpose of (this power) is to bolster the enforcement of the new freedom of speech duties on higher education providers and student unions, so that there are clear consequences for those who breach those duties.

“(It) will ensure a clear route to individual redress for all who have suffered loss where freedom of speech duties have been breached and will give those duties real teeth.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The Bill will bring in important and necessary changes to strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities in England so that all students and staff feel able to express themselves without fear of repercussion. 

“The figure highlighted in our impact assessment is an estimation representing costs shared across the higher education sector as a whole over a ten-year period.”

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