Proposals that could give academics greater protection from libel claims have been set out in legislation announced today.
A defamation bill was unveiled in the Queen’s Speech, which sets out the government’s legislative programme for the next year. However, as expected, a higher education bill that would have aimed to level the playing field between publicly and privately funded universities was not included.
Among the defamation proposals, which have already been put forward in draft form, are moves to extend the defence of qualified privilege to peer-reviewed material in academic and scientific journals. There are also hopes that the public interest defence will be strengthened to protect researchers writing opinion pieces or taking part in written debate.
The bill follows a two-year campaign to reform current laws, end growing “libel tourism” and protect freedom of expression for journalists, writers, researchers and scientists.
Tracey Brown, managing director of Sense About Science, said the bill would “open the way to developing a law guided by public interest, not powerful interests”.
Meanwhile, the absence of a higher education bill from the Queen’s Speech confirms that new laws to govern the sector will be delayed by at least a year.
It was reported in January that the proposals had been shelved indefinitely because Prime Minister David Cameron was unwilling to become embroiled in further battles over privatisation, given the political furore surrounding changes to the NHS.
The bill would have brought private institutions under the same system of regulation as state-funded universities.
They would also have been able to access student loans of up to £9,000 a year (although subject to an overall cap on places).
Under the current system, students at private providers are able to draw on taxpayer-backed loans to fund tuition fees of up to £6,000 a year, with no cap on numbers.
The bill may also have allowed organisations that do not teach, such as educational giant Pearson, to apply for degree-awarding powers.
However, commentators have suggested that the coalition could try to carry out many of the delayed bill’s reforms without specific legislation.
Patrick McGhee, vice-chancellor of the University of East London and chair of the Million+ group, said: “The failure to make any parliamentary time means that there is now a democratic as well as a regulatory deficit in respect of the future of English universities and higher education.”