Vice-chancellors told to promote free speech or ‘be on the wrong side of history’

The higher education minister says legislative action is needed to ensure universities are a ‘fortress of ideas’ - Geoff Pugh
The higher education minister says legislative action is needed to ensure universities are a ‘fortress of ideas’ - Geoff Pugh

Vice-chancellors have been told they must actively promote, not just protect, freedom of speech as the universities minister warns them “not to be on the wrong side of history”.

Michelle Donelan said campus chiefs would no longer be allowed to “shy away” from the “real threat” to academic freedom now that ministers are tackling it “like never before”.

Instead they must “effect a culture change” to end the “upsurge in physical threats and complete intolerance of opposing ideas”, which she said was endangering democracy and risked Britain tumbling down world university rankings.

Universities and students’ unions face fines of £500,000, or two per cent of their income, if they fail to uphold free speech duties in the Government’s new academic freedom bill, which is at an advanced stage in Parliament.

The minister warned that “warm words and gentle prodding hasn’t worked so far, so that’s why we need legislative action” to ensure universities are a “fortress of ideas”.

Ms Donelan said “too often, university leadership turns a blind eye” to an “intolerant mob”, singling out the “deplorable” campaign against Prof Kathleen Stock, who quit Sussex University last year in a trans row, and LSE students who hounded the Israeli ambassador.

‘Intolerant few’

“This intolerant few have decided that protecting people from offence is more important than advancing human knowledge,” she said, pointing to surveys showing hundreds of scholars feel forced to self-censor their views.

“Let me take a moment to inform the intolerant few - their brief period of power is over,” she added.

And addressing vice-chancellors and staff, Ms Donelan told a Policy Exchange event in London on Tuesday: “Do not be on the wrong side of history. Do not allow the history books to record your name as part of the small cabal of the intolerant.”

She said “universities won’t just have to protect free speech, they will have to promote it”, and will receive extensive guidance from a new free speech champion in the Office for Students, the regulator, to stop debate being “whittled away by wokery”.

The new bill will give academics and students a direct route for compensation if they are censored or silenced, through a new legal tort, which has been welcomed by scholars.

Ms Donelan also expressed her “frustration” at universities “doing a disservice” to students by slapping trigger warnings on Harry Potter novels and setting up staff panels to “cancel historical figures such as Isaac Newton, Francis Drake or William Gladstone”.

She asked: “Who would you rather employ - an inquisitive, critical, open-minded graduate, or a self-contained cookie-cutter graduate who is afraid to be challenged or confront new ideas?”

Praise for universities backing staff

But she praised those vice-chancellors which have “put their money where their mouth is” on free speech by backing staff, such as Durham University’s rejection of student calls to dismiss an academic in a row over a talk by the columnist Rod Liddle, and the ditching of a restrictive speech code at Cambridge following a grassroots campaign by professors.

Only on Monday, in a sign of a “turning tide” against “threats, intimidation and harassment”, Reading University rejected an open letter from its students’ union telling it to “reconsider consent” for a talk by gender-critical academics about gay conversion therapy.

Amid a protest of around 50 students outside the talk calling for “safeguards” to protect trans people, the university stressed it was “committed to freedom of speech”.