Response to OfS consultation on new free speech complaints scheme

Read our response to the Office for Students (OfS) consultation on a new free speech complaints scheme.

The Office for Students (OfS) is implementing new freedom of speech functions, which will include a new free speech complaints scheme. 

This consultation set out their proposals in this area, the background to these proposals, why the OfS are making them, and what they expect their implementation to achieve.

The consultation ran from 14 December 2023 to 10 March 2024.

The OfS invited responses from anyone with an interest in freedom of speech in English higher education and called for views from all types and size of provider and students’ union, as well as the views of schools, employers, third sector organisations, and policy bodies.

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

In our response, we stated that the complaints scheme and regulatory ethos behind OfS’s approach to fulfil its obligations to the HE (Free Speech) Act fails to recognise the fundamentally different environment that 21st century higher education providers operate within. We believe that the OfS has chosen a one-size-fits-all model, where a variation of approach would be more appropriate. 

We sought clarity and further guidance in a number of areas, recognising that this is a new area of regulation. Our recommendation is for the OfS to commit to a review at 12 months after the implementation of the scheme by which point experience may help to provide clarity where guidance alone may currently struggle. 

We also raised the following points on behalf of members:

  • It is not clear from this consultation that the diversity of higher education models has been considered, nor that the specific concerns of industry-based or global provision are accounted for within the complaints model. 
  • Without more proportionate approaches, including more time to resolve internal complaints processes, clarity on those students and staff eligible for the process, and action to limit the impact of costs and fees on existing students, there will be a disproportionate impact on smaller providers. 
  • Examples within the consultation were very narrow, almost entirely related to traditional student experiences, and not representative of IHE member students' learning environments.

We have set out our specific concerns for student organisations who may be caught by the broad definition of students’ union in the separate consultation on regulating students’ unions on free speech matters

Read our full response using the download link below. 

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