Examination of Witness

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 4:16 pm ar 13 Medi 2021.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Nicola Dandridge gave evidence.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Ceidwadwyr, Christchurch 4:45, 13 Medi 2021

Q We now welcome Nicola Dandridge, who is the chief executive of the Office for Students. Will you tell us a bit about what that is? What is the Office for Students?

Nicola Dandridge:

We are the independent regulator for higher education in England. We have been up and running since 2018.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q Thank you for joining us today, Ms Dandridge. Just looking through the legislation, I have a few points to make. It does not seem to be particularly clear about the future relationship between the Office for Students and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. Is that clear to you from the Bill? Perhaps you will explain how it could work.

Nicola Dandridge:

We work collaboratively with a whole range of organisations, including the OIA and other regulators. The way to make that work is to have discussions with them, to make sure that there is clarity about responsibilities and who does what, and that that is clear between ourselves and to universities, colleges and students. I am a stakeholder, so I anticipate that exactly the same will happen here. The new director for freedom of speech and academic freedom will speak with the OIA to resolve who does what and how we can make sure that that is as clear as possible to staff, students and everyone who is interested in this area of activity.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q Can you imagine situations in which one body might go to the OIA and another to the OfS, and how that might be reconciled?

Nicola Dandridge:

That is exactly the sort of thing that we need to make clear. I do not see that that is an insuperable problem. We just need to make sure that we have sorted it out and that there is clarity for everyone involved.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q You mentioned the director for freedom of speech and academic freedom and the appointment process. I guess I have certain concerns about how the chair of the OfS was appointed. How do you imagine—it is not clear from the Bill—the director for freedom of speech and academic freedom will be appointed? Should how that will come about be included in the Bill? As we have heard in previous sessions, there are concerns—across the House, depending on which Government are in place—so who should be involved in that appointment? I assume that you would want to be involved, for example. Maybe you should have the ultimate say. Do you have any thoughts about that, and should it be included in the Bill?

Nicola Dandridge:

I anticipate that the process will follow the usual public appointments process and be conducted by the DFE. That is probably a question you need to put to the DFE. It is unlikely to be a decision taken in-house by the Office for Students.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q Do you have any thoughts on the skills that that person might need?

Nicola Dandridge:

They will need to believe in the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom, as the OfS and all of us do. That goes without saying. In this debate, I have been interested to hear that they should be a lawyer. Undoubtedly, I think a legal background would be helpful, but I really do not think that being a lawyer is essential. It is not as if we are going to lock the director up in a room somewhere with no access to any of our existing resource. We have a very talented legal team already, who will provide considerable advice and support to the director. So I do not think that being a lawyer is essential, but I do think that having a legal background might help, but absolutely not determinative of who is appointed.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Q Have you had any conversations with the current chair or the DFE about what the scale of the department—it will not be just one individual; it will be the director of freedom of speech plus X people working within the department—will be, what the cost will be and how that will be funded? Would the OfS need an additional budget?

Secondly, do you have concerns about what will happen for universities and student unions? One of the points that came out from the BEIS report, which you may have seen, is what significant costs there will be for universities and student unions, which clearly, after the past 18 months, are really struggling financially anyway.

Nicola Dandridge:

It is very difficult at this stage to predict what the pressures on the Office for Students will be as a consequence of the proposals, but certainly the complaints system is likely to generate quite a lot of work. It is really important that we have the capacity to deal with that properly without compromising our important work on quality and standards, and access and participation. This is an area that we will be keen to discuss with Government to ensure that we are properly resourced to do this work well in all its complexity, without compromising our other work.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Minister of State (Education)

Q Thank you for attending, Ms Dandridge. When considering the impact that the new director could have, we can look at the impact that the director for fair access and participation has had. Could you outline the positive impact that you think having somebody solely responsible for that area has had?

Nicola Dandridge:

In my view, and I think the view of many others, the role of the director for fair access and participation has been really significant in setting expectations, driving through the importance of what is also a very complex agenda, engaging in discussions with universities, students and student unions, and speaking publicly about the importance of access and participation. I think the impact that the director has had has been really significant, and it is a good analogy for the impact that we hope the director for freedom of speech and academic freedom will have similarly.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Minister of State (Education)

Q What routes could students, staff and visiting speakers currently take if they wished to raise with the OfS a concern about a provider with regard to free speech?

Nicola Dandridge:

We have to approach free speech in a rather oblique way, because of the way our powers are structured and set up. We have a number of public interest principles, of which one is a duty to protect academic freedom. The other is to secure free speech. What we say is that, under one of our registration conditions, all universities and colleges have to have governing documents that uphold those public interest principles, and they have to have governance and management arrangements to adequately implement those public interest principles.

The way into this is not exactly straightforward. We have a number of ongoing cases where we are looking at issues of free speech, but because of the ways our powers are framed, we are primarily looking at whether universities and colleges have the systems in place to address issues of free speech themselves, rather than our adjudicating on them. That is rather a complex explanation, because of the way our powers are structured. They are slightly, as I say, oblique, whereas what the Bill proposes is entirely different. It foregrounds the importance of free speech and, for all the reasons of which you will be aware, gives us significant additional powers in that respect.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Minister of State (Education)

Q So as the body dedicated to students, in essence, would you say that you are constrained at the moment in assisting students with issues of free speech?

Nicola Dandridge:

The way our powers are structured means that we approach it by looking at the systems that the university has in place. That is a very limited way of engaging with issues of free speech, so yes, it is constrained.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Llafur, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

Q Welcome—it is great to see you here. Coming back to the point that you made about the regulatory overlap between the OfS and the OIA, you said that we would need to have some sort of clarity and talk about that. Would you say that that clarity should be in the Bill—that it should explain who does what—or are you thinking more about guidance produced by the Department for Education? How can that work out so that everybody knows where to go and whom to go to?

Nicola Dandridge:

I was thinking that it would be the latter. It is one of the first responsibilities that the director for free speech and academic freedom will have to undertake. Although it would be their choice, not mine, I would anticipate that they would want to produce guidance in order to provide clarity in some of these very complex areas, one of which is who does what and how it is done. I was anticipating that it would be guidance and not on the face of the Bill.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Llafur, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

Q I know that the Office for Students has received two letters recently from the Secretary of State, directing you to reduce the regulatory burden on higher education providers. How does the Bill align with the Secretary of State’s stated aim to reduce the regulatory burden?

Nicola Dandridge:

Well, it is challenging. We take reducing the regulatory burden very seriously. It is one of our own priorities, as well as a priority for the Secretary of State, but it is like all these things. Regulatory burden is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is if it is disproportionate. It depends on what the regulator does, and there is a very serious issue here about academic freedom, for the reasons that you have been hearing this week and last. The way through this is to ensure that our response is proportionate and risk-based, and that will be one of our priorities as we go into this. Clearly it is challenging, because this is a very significant number of additional responsibilities—serious and complex responsibilities—so it needs to be done properly. That is what we will do, and we will look forward to doing it in that way.

Photo of Felicity Buchan Felicity Buchan Ceidwadwyr, Kensington

May I ask a simple question? Do you welcome the Bill?Q

Nicola Dandridge:

Yes. We think that there is a serious and significant issue in relation to academic freedom and free speech in higher education, and the proposals in the Bill seek to address that and create mechanisms for tackling such issues.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

Q The Bill would allow a complainant to bypass the Office for Students and go straight to the courts. Is that something you welcome—that there is an ability to run rings around each process—or should they be interrelated?

Nicola Dandridge:

The Bill does acknowledge that the different mechanisms might need to be interrelated, so that a student or an academic member of staff can take recourse through only one mechanism before they engage with another. That is in the Bill. I do not think it is a question of running rings around the Office for Students. It will be a question of making clear what the advantages and disadvantages are for each route, so that the student, member of staff or any third party affected can pursue the most appropriate recourse for them.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

Q Currently, there is no requirement in the Bill to go through any internal or external process before you go to the courts.

Nicola Dandridge:

But the Bill allows for that.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

Q Is that something that you think should be more explicit in the Bill—to require someone to have sought other dispute mechanisms first, like you do with other requirements, such as before you go to court for a judicial review?

Nicola Dandridge:

The Bill does acknowledge that that may be something that needs to happen. I do not know whether it needs to be on the face of the Bill, but the Bill does acknowledge that that sort of thing needs to happen, and I think it is quite important. The main thing is about making sure that there are clear and proportionate paths for claimants to follow. Of course, the advantage of the complaints system—for example, with the Office for Students—is that it would be free to the claimant, whereas going to the courts can be very expensive. Things such as that need to be made clear, so that people can make the appropriate choice.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

Q Do you think it is right that the outcome and annual report made by the Office for Students would be privileged and, therefore, not open for judicial review or oversight?

Nicola Dandridge:

We would normally publish our reports. It depends on the circumstances, but I cannot imagine why we would not want to publish a report of this sort.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

Q But my understanding is that the report being privileged means that a complainant who might feel that it has not fairly reflected their views would not have recourse to judicial review. Do you think it right that a public body has that unusual level of privilege?

Nicola Dandridge:

My understanding is that the Bill protects against defamation—that is very common with other regulators, too—but that does not mean that the decisions of the director for free speech and academic freedom cannot be judicially challenged. All our regulatory decisions—or most, as far as I am aware—can be judicially challenged, and I do not see that the decision of the director would be any different.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

That is very helpful—thank you very much.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Ceidwadwyr, South Holland and The Deepings

Q The witness immediately before you suggested that lawful speech on campus might be mitigated, restrained or even prohibited, and said that that job would perhaps fall to the Government or vice-chancellors. What is your view on that?

Nicola Dandridge:

These sorts of decisions about what is lawful and what is not are both hugely complex and very facts-specific, so I think it would be very hard for the Government to anticipate those sorts of decisions. I think it is appropriate for that to fall to someone like the director and the Office for Students, who could take all the facts into account to make the appropriate decision.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Ceidwadwyr, South Holland and The Deepings

Q Presumably, with lawful free speech on campus assumed to be a given, it is important that its defence is not in the hands of particular vice-chancellors or university management but carried out by an independent third party on the grounds of consistency.

Nicola Dandridge:

I think the whole point behind setting up a director is that those will be independent decisions, whether for the university or for anyone else. That is fundamental to the way the role is cast, and I think it is fundamentally important.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Ceidwadwyr, Congleton

Q One students union has submitted to us:

“This bill addresses a non-problem”

—certainly at their student union and university. Do you agree?

Nicola Dandridge:

The evidence suggests that there is an issue.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Ceidwadwyr, Congleton

Q Thank you. Would you also reflect on another statement made in that submission?

“Speakers”

—presumably at events—

“should be of the highest quality and have expertise in their field. Therefore, if speakers are known to have contradictory, erroneous or conspiratorial ideas on subjects for which they are speaking”,

our student union

“is obliged to discourage the spread of disinformation on its premises and within its societies.”

What are your reflections on that statement?

Nicola Dandridge:

I do not know the context in which it was made—in all these things, context is rather important—but it does seem to fly in the face of the principles of free speech and academic freedom.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Ceidwadwyr, Congleton

Q The context is a response to the Bill, under the heading “Thought leaders”.

Nicola Dandridge:

It is worth adding that we at the Office for Students work very closely, collaboratively and constructively with the NUS and student unions across the country. I have yet to have a discussion with a student union that does not think that free speech and academic freedom are really important.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Ceidwadwyr, Christchurch

There are no further questions, so I thank our witness very much for her contribution.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned—(Michael Tomlinson.)

Adjourned till this day at half-past Five o'clock.