Queen’s Speech: bills on skills and campus free speech planned

Government’s legislative agenda includes extra powers for OfS on HE quality and enabling individuals to sue universities on free speech

May 11, 2021
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The Westminster government is to bring forward legislation that will enable people to access funding for English higher and further education throughout their lives, as well as to create new laws on campus free speech.

The Queen’s Speech, setting out the Conservative government’s legislative agenda for the coming parliamentary session, outlined plans for a Skills and Post-16 Education Bill and a Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill.

The skills bill will “enable people to access flexible funding for higher or further education, bringing universities and further education colleges closer together, and removing the bias against technical education”, delivering the prime minister’s lifetime skills guarantee, according to briefing notes for the speech published by the government.

The bill will “strengthen the powers of the Office for Students to take action to address low quality higher education provision”, the briefing says. This will ensure the OfS “can regulate in line with minimum expectations of quality”, it adds.

A lifelong loan entitlement “will give individuals access to the equivalent of up to four years’ worth of student loans for level 4-6 qualifications that they can use flexibly across their lifetime, at colleges as well as universities”, it also says.

Universities will look for clarity on whether the new loans will be outside current rules that mean students cannot access funding for a course that is an equivalent or lower qualification (ELQ) to one they already have.

There will also be a bill to “strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities in England”, the Queen’s Speech confirmed.

As expected, the long-planned bill will impose “new freedom of speech and academic duties on higher education providers and students’ unions” and give the OfS “the power to impose fines for breaches”; extend free speech laws to students’ unions; create “a new role of director for freedom of speech and academic freedom at the Office for Students”; and enable individuals “to seek compensation through the courts if they suffer loss as a result of breach of the freedom of speech duties”.

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said vice-chancellors had “long called for a more flexible approach to student finance to better support part-time, flexible learning and mature students”.

“This bill is a step in the right direction and welcome recognition that adults should have access to education throughout their lives,” he said. “As the nation looks to recover and rebuild from the impact of Covid-19, we need fresh thinking, policy change and government support to help people of all ages and backgrounds to reskill and retrain.

“Many universities are ready to scale up their alternatives to the traditional three-year degree, giving more people the chance to study accredited modules flexibly, including ‘bite-size’ courses that can be accumulated. This will allow more people to develop skills at university which will benefit the UK’s recovery and boost local economies.”

Jo Grady, the University and College Union general secretary, said that while there were “serious threats to freedom of speech and academic freedom from campus…they come from the government and university managers, not staff and students”.

“Widespread precarious employment strips academics of the ability to speak and research freely, and curtails chances for career development. Free speech and academic freedom are threatened more widely on campus by government interference in the form of the Prevent duty, and attempts to impose the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition and examples of antisemitism on universities,” Dr Grady said.


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