Arif Ahmed updates on OfS work to implement new free speech legislation

Arif Ahmed discusses the OfS's work to implement new free speech legislation, including a further consultation which will be launched in the coming weeks.

Free speech is a fundamental right for everyone. Freedom of speech is at the heart of high quality education and free speech issues may affect students with all kinds of views. Our approach to freedom of speech is completely neutral about these views. We do not mind what views people have on contentious topics, and we certainly aren’t interested in ‘culture wars’. Indeed the OfS stands for the widest possible definition of freedom of speech: anything within the law. However, freedom of speech within the law does not cover illegal speech, for instance speech that amounts to illegal harassment or stirring up of racial or religious hatred.

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023 received Royal Assent on 11 May 2023. The new legislation will strengthen the legal requirements placed on universities and colleges in relation to free speech and academic freedom, and it will expand the OfS’s regulatory role in this area. Most of the provisions are not yet in force. They are expected to come into force in two phases — later this year and in 2025.

We are working in a complex and fast moving space. The impact of this legislation and our regulation, including a new free speech complaints scheme, and our approach to regulating students’ unions on free speech matters, will be felt for many years.

Since I joined the OfS as Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom in August 2023, I have spoken to hundreds of people in the higher education sector including students, students’ unions, universities, colleges and their representative bodies. We are keen to hear from anyone affected by the legislation and I hope to meet with many more people in the coming weeks and months as we continue this work.

Next steps

In the coming weeks we expect to launch a further freedom of speech consultation. This will cover proposed guidance for universities, colleges and relevant students’ unions on securing free speech within the law and on publishing and maintaining a freedom of speech code of practice. At the same time, we will also consult on proposed revisions to the OfS’s regulatory framework to make reference to our new free speech functions. Finally, we will consult on our proposed approach to the recovery of costs in connection with our regulation in this area.

There will be lots of opportunities for engagement during the consultation period, and as always we are keen to hear a diversity of views.

Tell us what you think

A reminder that we are currently consulting on our new free complaints scheme that we expect to launch on 1 August 2024. Students, staff and visiting speakers will be able to complain to us about restrictions on free speech at a university, college or relevant students’ union where they claim to have suffered adverse consequences. Under our proposals, if we find the complaint justified, we may make recommendations such as changes to policies or processes or payments to the complainant. Our consultation is open until 10 March 2024.

Examples of potential free speech concerns

A politics undergraduate wants to write a coursework essay defending a position on a controversial topic. The professor refuses to let them write the essay or marks the essay down because the professor opposes the position put forward. This could raise free speech concerns and could possibly be the subject of a free speech complaint by the student, according to our consultation proposals.

A university is about to sign a lucrative collaborative contract with country A. Dr Z, who works at the university, is proposing to conduct research bearing on the human rights record of A's present government. The university pressures Dr Z to drop it. This could raise academic freedom concerns and could possibly be the subject of a free speech complaint by Dr Z, according to our consultation proposals.

We have also been developing our proposed approach to the regulation of students’ unions in relation to their new free speech duties. This will be the first time the OfS directly regulates students’ unions and we expect our new role to take effect from 1 August 2024. We’re consulting on our proposals and this consultation is open until 17 March 2024.

Thank you to everyone who has helped inform our thinking so far and attended one of our webinars. It’s really important that we hear from students and there’s still time to register for our webinar for students on 29 February 2024. There’s also a webinar on 6 March 2024 which is open to everyone. We expect to have published the outcomes of our consultations in the coming months. For now, we look forward to hearing from you.


There are no comments available yet. Be the first to leave a comment.
Leave a comment
Published 22 February 2024

Describe your experience of using this website

Improve experience feedback
* *

Thank you for your feedback