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Freedom of Speech in Education

Volume 715: debated on Monday 23 May 2022

The Government maintain our commitment to the protection of free speech and academic freedom in universities with the reintroduction of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill following the Queen’s Speech on 10 May.

As the Secretary of State says, it is right and just that we are in the vanguard of the fight for free speech. As the Bill that will ensure that progresses through the House, the backdrop against which we debate it is disturbing, with universities continuing to use the Equality Act 2010 to elevate the fear of disturbance or distress above the ability of free speech to inspire, enthral and move the academic agenda forward. The case of Dr Sarkar at the University of Oxford is a recent sad example, but it is by no means exceptional. Will the Secretary of State, before the Bill reaches the statute book, conduct a review of free speech policies at universities, and, if necessary, issue fresh guidance to ensure that academics and students in those universities can speak freely? [Interruption.]

I shall attempt to be pithy, Mr Speaker.

The Government and I are clear that issues such as antisemitism are abhorrent, but universities and students’ unions must balance their legal duties, including freedom of speech and tackling harassment. The Bill will place duties directly on students’ unions to secure freedom of speech for staff, students and visiting speakers. No one should fear expressing lawful views.