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The Government’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill became law in May 2023, with the Office for Students (OfS) tasked with implementing many of the new regulatory requirements placed on students' unions and universities. In December 2023, OfS published proposals on how students, staff and visiting speakers will be able to complain to the OfS about restrictions on their lawful free speech at a university, college or students’ union. A consultation was opened on the OfS proposals and we have submitted a Students' Union UCL response as well as contributing to the UCL response. Links to the consultation submissions are at the bottom of this page, but first, what impact will this new law have on us?

There has been significant public and political debate on issues concerning freedom of speech in higher education in the last few years, both in the UK and North America, and a growing perception that universities have fallen short on their freedom of expression duties. These debates are often framed both by Governments and activists campaigning on ‘culture wars’ issues. Through these debates, often played out in the media and on social media, the issue of freedom of speech has been weaponised against the very institutions which contribute the most to enabling our pluralist society to thrive. 

However, these debates are nothing new. Higher Education Institutions and their students’ unions have been battle grounds for debate on freedom of speech for many years, and while the new regulatory regime proposes a solution to a difficult to define problem, at Students’ Union UCL we’re keen to use this moment of national discussion to demonstrate the impact we have on our student communities when tackling the biggest issues in an uncertain world.  

It is critical for students' unions that their members can discuss and debate the most challenging issues of our time.

Students’ unions are independent charities, primarily funded through grants from their parent institution. They are embedded in the governance of their parent institution, but they are regulated by the Charity Commission. Most, if not all, students’ unions will contain in their charitable objects, a requirement to provide forums for debate for the purpose of advancing the education of their members. It is critical for students’ unions that their members can discuss and debate the most challenging issues of our time in a context that promotes freedom of speech, accessibility, and safety for those participating. We foresee the day to day management of our work securing freedom of speech for our members and invited visitors remaining similar to today, however the Act will likely present additional reputational risk for the charity’s trustees to manage and require more specialist support - including costly legal advice.

Too often ‘debate’ around Freedom of Speech arrives at an either-or approach – it is either freedom of speech or freedom from harm; freedom of speech or community cohesion; controversial speakers encouraged or no platformed; controversial views enabled or supressed. This reductive and decontextualised framing fails to recognise what we try to do every day – find balance in the best interests of our diverse community. We can, for example, recognise that there is no right in law to not be offended and do everything in our power to enable even the most objectionable speaker events to be facilitated on campus; and we can recognise that controversial and challenging opinions must be heard, or indeed challenged, in a democratic society. At the same time we can believe that we should encourage our student communities to be considerate of how they express or interrogate differing perspectives, recognising and reflecting on our own bias and power in the way we guide and support our students. We can argue on one hand that every topic should be open to academic discussion in a structured, moderated space, whilst also being clear that simply changing the context of the very same discussion could create an environment where speech becomes harassment. Freedom of Speech, after all, does not and has never meant freedom from consequences, it is our role and responsibility to help students navigate this complexity, and in doing so, develop skills and advance their own education. 

Students’ Union UCL aims to be the heart of the student community at UCL, ensuring our university is a place where diversity of opinions are not only accepted, but encouraged. We actively seek to facilitate student led events where speakers are invited to broaden the scope of discussion and debate and contribute to the academic and non-academic development of our members. We have a proud record of facilitating a wide range of external speaker events, through our student-led clubs and societies, covering a diverse range of topics every year. This matters to us, so this academic year we launched our Impartial Chairs programme, designed to provide students with an opportunity to develop key skills in debate and respectful disagreement. Through a range of learning techniques, the programme aims to empower the programme participants to confidently navigate discussions with individuals with differing views and to facilitate some of the student-led external speaker events that take place on campus, and in doing so to support and facilitate opportunities for robust debate at UCL in a respectful and inclusive environment. 

Each year we support our clubs and societies to facilitate over 1,500 external speaker events. If a speaker event can go ahead safely and within the law, we do everything we can to make it happen. That’s why we facilitate events where speakers are able to express their views and experiences, whilst differing, challenging and antithetical views are also heard and debated in a structured and appropriately controlled environment. Our role as facilitator extends to supporting the freedom of expression and assembly of individuals and groups that wish to protest speaker events, ensuring that all members of our community have the freedom to express their ideas and views, and no one person’s rights are impeded.  

We see our role as balancing a responsibility to enable and protect freedom of speech within the law with our fundamental charitable purposes for the benefit of our community and society. We think the best way to do this is to equip our communities with intercultural competence, emotional intelligence and awareness of global issues, to enable them to thrive in a pluralist society and a world in flux. This is why we committed to creating programmes designed to help students build an understanding of different perspectives, a nuanced and reflective understanding of power dynamics and a toolkit of techniques to help navigate challenging conversations. We're here to equip future generations of citizens with the skills and intellectual muscle to disagree well, and our responses to OfS’s consultation should be seen through this lens. 

Read our response to the consultation on the OfS’s approach to regulating students’ unions on free speech matters.

Read our response to the consultation on the OfS’s new free speech complaints scheme