Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Lord Johnson of Marylebone Portrait Lord Johnson of Marylebone (Con)
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My Lords, I draw attention to my interests in the register, as chairman of Access Creative College, chairman of ApplyBoard and as another visiting professor at King’s College London.

I welcome what the Government are trying to do in this area, and it is obviously of great importance to the vitality of our higher education and research system. The Bill represents a very significant extension of the existing legislation on the statute book in relation to freedom of speech in higher education and, as my noble friend Lord Willetts said in his excellent speech, it will require significant reconciliation with the Prevent duty, the IHRA and other legislation coming through this House in this Session. Some of that tension obviously already exists with the existing legislation, but it will get a lot sharper as a result of the new tort, the statutory complaints system and the creation of the role of the director of free speech within the Office for Students.

Because these issues have already been pretty well debated in the other place, and here this afternoon, I want to focus in my brief time on the Government’s recent amendment on Report in the other place in relation to overseas funding. This came in relatively late and has not received as much attention as it might have done. It is a very important addition to the Bill and, although I very much support what it is trying to do, it requires significant improvement as it goes through this House. This section of the Bill now manages at once to be excessively bureaucratic and to miss a significant part of the problem that arises in relation to overseas funding of our higher education system.

The four categories of relevant funding that are addressed in the Government’s amendment are good as far as they go: namely, endowments, gifts and donations; research contracts; research grants; and educational and commercial partnerships involving foreign Governments, foreign organisations and politically exposed people in countries that are not on the approved ATAS list. If your funding comes in one of these sources from a country that is not a NATO or EU country, or Japan, Singapore or South Korea, you will be captured by the reporting requirement. My concern is that the reporting requirement is ridiculously bureaucratic. That arises because the threshold that has been set is far too low, at a proposed £75,000.

Take UCL, for example. This is an organisation with income of £1.6 billion in the last financial year, £500 million in research grants and almost £50 million in philanthropic donations. Obviously, not all higher education institutions in this country are as big as UCL, but to ask UCL to devote resources to counting every dollop of £75,000 that might come from an overseas source in this way is ridiculous. A more suitable threshold might be £1 million.

The control-freakery of the proposed threshold contrasts starkly with the super-chillaxed way in which the Government’s chosen definition of overseas funding manages to exclude altogether the largest source of such overseas funding: the income that universities receive from the uncapped tuition fees from international students. To be clear, I strongly support the contribution that international students make to the success of and the learning and research environment in our universities. However, it is extremely important, for obvious reasons, to have a diverse international student body, and I worry about the concentration of students from particular countries within some of our most significant institutions. This concentration of students from particular countries has the potential to create financial dependencies on student flows from particular countries that may limit freedom of speech and result in academic self-censorship.

Six of our Russell group institutions had more than 5,000 Chinese students in the most recent academic year. One of our leading Russell group institutions has more than 11,000 Chinese students out of a student body of 44,000. That is a very significant number; by my back-of-the-envelope calculation, they must be bringing into that institution more than £200 million of tuition fee income, representing at least a third, possibly more, of its tuition fee income from domestic and foreign students combined. This is potentially creating a lack of financial resilience in some of our most important research organisations and, with it, the associated threats to freedom of speech and research integrity that arise precisely from this dependence on the income from students from one big and autocratic country. This is a dependence that is now too big to ignore.

Others in this debate have raised the question of self-censorship. This is very difficult to measure precisely but we must not be complacent about it and pretend that it is not a problem in academia. As Professor Kerry Brown, the leading China expert at King’s College London, recently wrote in a paper for HEPI on China and self-censorship:

“While one can sometimes find tangible evidence in the form of conversations, emails, letters or other means, that pressure has been placed, with much self-censorship the act itself is invisible—it occurs in people’s heads, before and as they write and is very private … What is clear is that in the last few years, the fear and anxiety of facing individual and institutional consequences for straying over the ever-shifting red line that manages to offend China has risen dramatically … China is increasingly willing to call out those who criticise it. For universities, this can run the risk of impacting on the recruitment of Chinese students, or undertaking research collaborations with China.”

These are issues to be discussed in greater detail in Committee, but this is why I would welcome a broader definition of overseas funding than we have at present in this Bill. It would be sensible to add a duty on the Office for Students to consider whether a registered higher education provider is overly reliant on overseas tuition fee income from students from a single country of origin. If we are to legislate again on freedom of speech and higher education, this surely must be part of the discussion.