University Freedom of Speech Bill becomes law

Landmark legislation will ensure universities protect and promote freedom of speech on campus, fulfilling a manifesto promise to bolster academic freedom

A huge step forward was taken for protecting free speech in our universities as Professor Arif Ahmed has been appointed as the new Director overseeing free speech at the Office for Students.

While there are already statutory duties on universities to protect free speech - our newly passed Freedom of Speech Act will ensure that universities promote this fundamental value.

The appointment of Professor Ahmed as the new Director follows the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill successfully becoming law on 11 May. The historic legislation will establish a new free speech complaints system, while also strengthening the legal duties on higher education providers in England to protect and promote freedom of speech on campuses up and down the country, for students, staff and visiting speakers.

Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing Claire Coutinho said:

"We’re making history with the Freedom of Speech Act, ensuring that fear does not undermine the rights of students and academics to debate controversial ideas and securing the right to an open exchange of ideas in universities."

The new Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom will sit on the board of the Office for Students, with responsibility for investigations of breaches of the new freedom of speech duties, including a new complaints scheme for students, staff and visiting speakers who have suffered loss due to a breach.

Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom Professor Ahmed said:

"Free speech and academic freedom are vital to the core purpose of universities and colleges. They are not partisan values. They are also fundamental to our civilization.

"As Director, I will defend them using all means available. I feel tremendously honoured and fortunate to have been appointed."

The Prime Minister recently stressed the importance of Freedom of Speech on campuses saying:

"A free society requires free debate. We should all be encouraged to engage respectfully with the ideas of others.

"University should be an environment where debate is supported, not stifled.

"A tolerant society is one which allows us to understand those we disagree with, and nowhere is that more important than within our great universities."

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023 delivers on the Government’s commitment to strengthen academic freedom and free speech in higher education, helping to protect the reputation of our universities as centres of academic freedom.

Registered higher education providers in England will have extended legal duties not only to take steps to secure freedom of speech and academic freedom, but also to promote these important values. Students’ unions will also be held to the same legal responsibilities as universities and their colleges to take reasonably practicable steps to ensure lawful freedom of speech. Higher education providers and students’ unions that fail to comply may face sanctions, including fines.

Department for Education
Claire Coutinho MP