Oxbridge JCRs and MCRs to be exempt from free speech law

The exemption has been condemned as a ‘ridiculous’ double standard by Labour MPs

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill was amended early this week to exclude Oxford and Cambridge JCRs, MCRs and similar college-based student unions from the proposed legislation.

This amendment was criticised by Labour MPs who accused the government of creating a “two-tier” university system, with Oxford and Cambridge separate to other universities.

Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, told MPs in a debate on the bill that including Oxbridge student common rooms in the legislation would be “unnecessary and overly bureaucratic.”

She argued that,”Colleges do fund their junior and middle common rooms. And to that extent, they can exert a lot of control over their activities, as these groups do not own or occupy their own premises, or run the room booking systems.”

Whilst Oxbridge colleges were initially also exempt from the proposed Bill, they were added last week, and will be liable for any breaches. It seems that is assumed that the college would ensure that the student common rooms would abide by the law, without the JCR and MCR themselves running the risk of legal action.

Matt Western, the Labour shadow minister for universities, said: “It is ridiculous for ministers to say that students in Warwick or Hull should be subject to unnecessary, burdensome bureaucracy and their student unions put at risk of being sued, but not the students of Oxford or Cambridge due solely to the makeup of the university.”

The Bill is designed to combat what Gavin Williamson, the then Education Secretary, described as “the chilling effect of censorship on campus.”

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