Today’s second reading debate of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill was a depressing example of the Conservatives’ “look over there!” tactics, stoking up culture wars to distract from their failures in other areas.
Labour has a long record of protecting free speech, but I told MPs in tonight’s debate that it has too often been used by the Conservative Party as a political football. In my speech, I outlined the existing and sufficient legislation in this area – the 1986 Education Act which required universities to uphold freedom of speech, and the 1994 Education Act, which emphasised that free speech “within the law” which would not cause “fear or provocation” or “alarm or distress” must be upheld.
I also explained to the House that over the last year, I have received hundreds of emails from students, from parents with children at university, from staff working hard to provide the best possible learning during the pandemic against a backdrop of confusion and late decisions from the Government; but none on free speech.
The Government would do better to spend its time addressing the real issues that matter to students and universities, not trying to create new ones. Throughout the pandemic, students in England have been treated far worse than those in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, with an average of only £43.70 allocated per student in England for hardship support, while those in our other nations received many times that.
I told the Minister of the importance of addressing lost learning experiences through the pandemic, and called for the instatement of a learning remediation fund as called for by the APPG Students’ report, to assist universities to provide access to experiences, specialist facilities and equipment for skills development and more—those things that students have missed during the pandemic.
You can read my full speech here.