Response to OfS consultation on approach to regulating students’ unions on free speech matters

Read our response to the Office for Students (OfS) consultation on their approach to regulating students’ unions on free speech matters.

We have already published our response to the first Office for Students (OfS) consultation on a new free speech complaints scheme. 

The Office for Students (OfS) is also implementing regulation of students’ unions in relation to their free speech duties. 

The consultation ran from 14 December 2023 to 17 March 2024.

The OfS invited responses from students, students’ union representatives, and staff and leaders at higher education providers that will be engaging in the new arrangements, calling for views from all types and size of students’ union and provider. Schools, employers, third sector organisations, policy bodies and others with an interest in freedom of speech in English higher education were also invited to respond.

A summary of responses to this consultation is expected in summer 2024, followed by an outline of next steps in the policy and implementation process.

Our response

To inform our response, we consulted members of the IHE Student Advisory Board (SAB)

We highlighted the complexities arising from differences in the definitions of a students' union. Urgent guidance is needed which addresses the divergence between the government's Prevent guidance and OfS’s approach to identifying 'relevant students’ unions'. We sought clarity on the criteria to determine if a student group fits the definition, highlighting that the language used does not align with a modern view of a students' union - none of the students from the IHE SAB were able to identify if the council, committee or society they were part of would meet the definition.

In addition, we strongly encouraged the OfS to consider their interventions relative to the size, structure and funding of student organisations on the list of students’ unions. 

We also raised the following points on behalf of members:

  • With small student populations, often with a majority of underrepresented student groups, students are unable to dedicate the time to lead student organisations, groups or associations. OfS should consider if their actions in pursuing their regulatory aims may undermine student representation at these types of providers. 
  • We consider it unreasonable for OfS to impose a monetary penalty for any student organisation which has no access to independent funds, or which qualifies as a micro entity.
  • The proposals are clearly positioned for a traditional model of a students' union - there is a risk to the operation of smaller student organisations in resourcing the regulatory burden.
  • It is unclear what role higher education providers have in supporting smaller student groups who may meet the definition, to comply with their regulatory responsibilities as defined by this consultation. 

Read our full response using the download link below. 

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