Published: 01:30 EST, 26 December 2017 | Updated: 01:06 EST, 27 December 2017
Universities must be places that “open minds, not close them”, Jo Johnson has warned.
Students must be able to challenge controversial opinions, according to the Universities Minister, who said there are dangers to shielding students from differing views under the banner of “no-platforming” or “safe spaces”.
In a speech at the Limmud Festival in Birmingham, a celebration of Jewish learning and culture, he warned that free speech is a key part of university life.
A new regulator, the Office for Students, will be created in January to ensure that universities promote freedom of speech within the law (PA)
“Universities should be places that open minds, not close them, where ideas can be freely challenged,” Mr Johnson said.
“But in universities in America and increasingly in the United Kingdom, there are countervailing forces of censorship, where groups have sought to stifle those who do not agree with them in every way under the banner of ‘safe spaces’ or ‘no-platforming’.
“Academics and students alike must not allow a culture to take hold where silence is preferable to a dissenting voice. If we want our universities to thrive, we must defend the liberal values of freedom of speech and diversity of opinion on which they depend.
He said a new regulator, the Office for Students, will be created in January to ensure that universities promote freedom of speech within the law.
His comments come amid an ongoing debate about free speech at universities, and a number of reports of speakers, debates, literature and organisations being opposed or criticised, often by student unions, societies or particular groups of students.
Mr Johnson also said that institutions must ensure there is no place for hatred, discrimination, extremism or racism.
“A racist and anti-Semitic environment is by definition an illiberal one that is totally antithetical to the idea of a university in a free society,” he told the festival.
Under Government plans, universities that fail to protect free speech could face fines.
Institutions must ensure that students can take part in ”rigorous, open debate”, or risk action from the new higher education watchdog, the Office for Students, ministers announced in October.
The proposals, which are open for consultation, could also see universities facing action including suspension and deregulation, if they do not protect free speech.
“No-platforming” is a practice in which a group or individuals seen to have unacceptable or offensive views are banned from taking part in a public debate or meeting, while “safe space” policies aim to ensure all students feel able to express themselves and are protected from views and language they find offensive, as well as discrimination.
But there are concerns that these policies are increasingly affecting free speech, and are being used to prevent speakers and discussions that some find uncomfortable or disagreeable.
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “Universities are absolutely committed to promoting and securing free speech and will not allow legitimate speech to be stifled. There is already a legal duty on the higher education sector to secure free speech within the law and universities take these responsibilities very seriously.
“They have a duty, not only to secure freedom of speech, but also to protect the safety of students and staff. This is not always easy to balance, but universities are becoming increasingly experienced in this area and have policies in place.
“It is important that universities do not become discussion-free zones. They must continue to be places where difficult topics are discussed and where people, however controversial their views, should be allowed to speak within the law, and their views challenged openly.”
Dr Pam Lowe, a senior lecturer in sociology at Aston University, questioned why Mr Johnson was intervening at a time when Government-imposed restrictions on speakers under the Prevent counter-radicalisation programme were having a “chilling” effect on universities.
“It has made having external speakers a lot harder for all universities. I think it is slightly ironic that the Government is now accusing the universities of having a lack of free speech,” she told BBC Radio 4’s The World At One.
“I worry about what is going on here. It suggests to me that the Universities Minister has actually got another agenda because it doesn’t really make sense what he is saying at the minute.”
She said she was not aware of any university which had a “no platform” policy, while student unions which had been involved in banning speakers were independent organisations.
“Universities don’t have control over the policies set by student unions,” she said.
However Nick Hillman, of the Higher Education Policy Institute think tank, said that Mr Johnson had been right to raise the issue.
“Universities and student unions are inextricably linked. Universities fund student unions so it is a bit naive to pretend that there are all entirely separate entities,” he told The World At One.
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