Freedom of Speech complaints scheme must include adequate timelines and clear communication, says the Russell Group

11 March 2024

The Office for Students (OfS) should follow existing good practice on complaint timelines, take expert advice to avoid setting unhelpful precedents, and focus on clear and effective communications, the Russell Group has said in response to the consultation on the new Freedom of Speech complaints scheme, which closed on 10 March. 

Following the passage of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023, the OfS will implement a new process from August 2024 to review complaints brought in relation to freedom of speech, to ensure free speech is maintained within the law on university campuses. 

The Russell Group has today published its response to the proposed scheme, highlighting the need to allow organisations enough time to adequately investigate potentially complex complaints before they are reviewed by the OfSWe have concerns that if the proposed 30-day limit is implemented, free speech complaints may be prioritised at the expense of other types of student complaint. 

We are therefore recommending that the OfS adopts a 90-day window for complaints to be completed via internal processes, to bring the scheme into line with current guidance from the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA). This will also mitigate some of the potential impact on smaller organisations such as Students’ Unions, who may have more limited resources, budgets or expertise to handle complex issues of this nature.  

Other recommendations put forward by the Russell Group to the OfS include: 

  • Mirroring, where possible, the well-established and effective processes of the OIA which has a proven record of handling complex student complaints. 

  • Building trust by maintaining open and clear channels of communication, making sure universities who have received a complaint are updated if an OfS review takes place. 

  • Consulting expert advisors on complex free speech cases, particularly in the early months of the scheme when individual cases will set precedent for future outcomes.  

  • Communicating clearly to students and staff when to approach OfS and when to use the existing OIA scheme, so complaints are handled efficiently and appropriately. 

Early complaints via the proposed scheme will set an important precedent for future years. Whilst the sector awaits the accompanying new condition of registration, it is critical that the OfS establishes a transparent process in the spirit of the legislation. We are encouraging the OfS to review the scheme after 12 months to ensure it is delivering in an efficient and effective manner for students, universities and taxpayers.  

Jamie Roberts, Policy Manager at the Russell Group, commented: 

“Freedom of speech remains a core value at the heart of universities’ purpose, and all our members are committed to defending and maintaining free speech for everyone in their community. This commitment needs to be backed by regulatory processes that are both robust and reasonable, and which enhance – rather than replace – universities’ well-established internal processes.  

“We are pleased to see that the current proposals look to avoid duplication with the OIA and take a principles-based approach, which allows for flexibility in the variety of cases that may occur. However, it is important that there is a careful balance between ensuring complaints are reviewed thoroughly, and removing unnecessary time and resource burdens for all parties. 

To enable this, we hope to see the OfS clarifying the eligibility and timescale of complaints, and ensuring institutions are given sufficient space to handle complaints before they go to review. This will be particularly important to support smaller organisations such as Students’ Unions to conduct their processes effectively. 

Read the Russell Group’s response to the consultation in full below.


Russell Group response to consultation on free speech complaints scheme

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