Oxford And Cambridge Students To Be Exempt From New Freedom Of Speech Laws
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Oxbridge student groups are to be exempt from new legal restrictions under the government’s new free speech legislation relating to universities.
Amid accusations of double standards by opposition MPs, universities minister Michelle Donelan, said during the debate on the higher education (freedom of speech) bill that imposing the rules on Oxford and Cambridge student common rooms would be ‘unnecessary and overly bureaucratic’.
The move led to protests that special treatment for Oxbridge was creating a two-tier system, with Labour MP Emma Hardy, saying:
“When we are talking about student unions and organisations, we are not just talking about Oxford and Cambridge, we are talking about all the small universities and colleges as well.
“It seems fairly ludicrous to me that every aspect of the bill would apply to the very small higher education provision at Hull College, but would not apply to the junior common room. That does not seem equitable or fair.”
The debate comes after it emerged that Oxbridge student common rooms - the college equivalent of students’ unions -would be exempted from the new laws which expose both universities and student representatives in England to legal action and punishment should they fail to uphold the principles of free speech in the eyes of the Office for Students.
The bill will see all higher education providers registered with the OfS and their student unions compelled to ‘secure freedom of speech’ for students, staff and speakers, including making venues available to groups or speakers regardless of beliefs, and publish a code of practice for all meetings and activities, reports the Guardian.
Donelan told MPs: “Since a bill introduces new routes of redress for individuals who believe that their local freedom of speech or academic freedom has been improperly restricted, it is vital that the right institutions are held responsible.
“Colleges do fund their junior and middle common rooms. And to that extent, they can exert a lot of control over their activities, as these groups do not own or occupy their own premises, or run the room booking systems. And so imposing these freedom of speech duties on [them] does seem quite unnecessary and overly bureaucratic.”
The shadow minister for universities, Matt Western, said: “It is ridiculous for ministers to say that students in Warwick or Hull should be subject to unnecessary, burdensome bureaucracy and their student unions put at risk of being sued, but not the students of Oxford or Cambridge due solely to the makeup of the university.
“Labour in government introduced laws to protect every individual’s right to freedom of speech. This unnecessary legislation is an attempt to distract from the Conservatives’ failures to support students over the last year.
“The government’s exclusive approach risks creating a two-tier system across our universities.”
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