Regulator to review guidance after MPs report on free speech at universities

The Joint Committee on Human Rights says the guidance on the issue is complicated, cautious, not easy to use, unduly restricive and 'could deter speech which is not unlawful'

Students' unions: free speech an issue
Students' unions: free speech an issue

The Charity Commission is to review its guidance on students' unions after a parliamentary committee said its existing approach deterred free speech.

A report on free speech in universities, published today by parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights, describes the commission's guidance on free speech in students' unions as "unduly complicated and cautious".

It says: "The commission’s guidance is not easy to use, is in places unduly restrictive, could deter speech which is not unlawful and does not take adequate account of the importance of debate in a university setting."

The committee, which is chaired by the Labour MP Harriet Harman, calls on the regulator to review its approach to ensure its actions are "proportionate and are adequately explained to student unions and don't unnecessarily limit free speech".

The report welcomes a forthcoming summit organised by Sam Gyimah, the universities minister, which will involve the commission, university representatives and the National Union of Students to "discuss how best to promote free speech".

In a statement about the committee's findings, the commission said it would "review its internal guidance on students’ unions to ensure a clearer distinction is made between the roles and responsibilities of the trustees of students’ unions, the student societies that are members of students’ unions and the students themselves".

It said that in light of evidence heard in the inquiry it had already agreed to review its compliance toolkit Protecting Charities From Harm, which is aimed at trustees of all charities.

The regulator also defended its approach, saying it recognised that students' unions played an important role in discussing controversial issues.

"Our existing guidance is clear that charities can legitimately challenge traditional boundaries, encourage the free exchange of views and host speakers with a range of views," it said.

"What we expect of students’ union trustees – as is expected of all charity trustees in accordance with charity law – is that, when carrying out activities, they consider and take reasonable steps to assess and manage any associated undue risks to their charity and people who come into contact with it.

"We recognise that the regulatory framework in this area can be difficult for students’ unions to navigate. Going forward, we will continue to work closely with the Office for Students, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and other key stakeholders, including the Department for Education, the National Union of Students and Universities UK, to ensure that each of our respective regulatory roles and approaches are clearer."

The cross-party committee of MPs and peers opened the inquiry after concerns were raised by politicians and the media that free speech on universities was under threat.

The report says it "did not find the wholesale censorship of debate in universities which media coverage has suggested", but nevertheless "there are real problems which act as disincentives for students to put on challenging events".

The problems listed include intolerant attitudes, such as no-platforming and safe-space policies, and the "complex" regulatory environment.

The commission's approach was also widely criticised.

The report says: "Its current approach does not adequately reflect the important role student unions play in educating students through activism and debate.

"Moreover, the generic guidance on protecting a charity’s reputation does not place due weight on the fact that inhibiting lawful free speech can do as much damage to a students’ union’s reputation as hosting a controversial speaker."

The commission’s guidance relating to political activities, campaigning and inviting external speakers is described in the report as "particularly problematic".

It highlights an extract that says a students' union "should not comment publicly on issues which do not affect the welfare of students as students" as particularly confusing because it leaves students unsure about whether they can discuss issues such as the treatment of political prisoners in a foreign country or campaigns to ban whale killing.

An NUS spokesman told Third Sector it looked forward to working with the commission and other bodies at Gyimah's summit.

He added: "I am delighted to see the report has uncovered what most of us knew all along: that there is no crisis of student censorship on campuses. It really is much ado about nothing.

"The committee rightly notes that ‘press accounts of widespread suppression of free speech are clearly out of kilter with reality’."

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