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Free speech in universities

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Higher Education, Universities

Rt Hon Gavin Williamson - Education Secretary

In The Times today, the Education Secretary sets out the importance of upholding free speech in universities.

Academic freedom and free speech on university campuses are rightly matters of high public interest.

Universities have a central role in our society — not just as educators of our young people but as generators of new ideas and challengers of conventional wisdom. If Britain as a nation is to prosper, it needs a vibrant, academically curious and intellectually diverse university sector.

British universities are among the most open in the world. The vast majority of academics remain free to pursue their research interests without fear or favour.

Despite the “snowflake” stereotype, recent polling by the Policy Exchange think tank shows a large number of students want an environment in which they’re free to hear a diversity of views. Yet one only needs to look at the worsening situation on US campuses to see the importance of taking action here.

Already in Britain, students have been expelled for expressing their religious beliefs. Mass petitions have called for the dismissal or defunding of academics on the grounds of their research interests; on some occasions, universities have caved in to this pressure.

Too often, activists’ threats are able to shut down events, and there have been appalling incidents directed at the Jewish community at leading London universities.

A year ago, new guidance on free speech at university was published. It’s fair to say this guidance hasn’t yet put a stop to concerns, which is why the Conservative Party committed to “strengthen academic freedom and free speech” in our recent manifesto.

As a start, universities themselves could be doing much more in this area. The right to civil and non-violent protest is sacrosanct; however, intimidation, violence or threats of violence are a crime.

Universities must make clear that intimidation is unacceptable and show a zero-tolerance approach to the perpetrators, applying strong sanctions and working with local police where appropriate to secure prosecutions.Universities should also do more to promote the right culture. The University of Oxford has adopted strong codes of conduct that champion academic freedom and free speech, explicitly recognising that this may sometimes cause offence.

Every university should promote such unambiguous guidance. If universities don’t take action, the government will.

If necessary, I’ll look at changing the underpinning legal framework, perhaps to clarify the duties of students’ unions or strengthen free speech rights. I don’t take such changes lightly, but I believe we have a responsibility to do whatever necessary to defend this right.

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