A “free speech champion” could be appointed to fight “unacceptable silencing and censoring” at universities under plans put forward by the education secretary.
The person would investigate potential infringements, such as no-platforming speakers or dismissal of academics.
Gavin Williamson’s other proposed measures to protect free speech on university campuses include:
- A free speech condition placed on universities in return for being registered in England and accessing public funds
- Universities would be legally required to actively promote free speech
- Student unions would also have to take steps to ensure lawful free speech for members and visiting speakers
- The Office for Students regulator could fine institutions if they breach the rules
- People could seek compensation through the courts if they suffer a loss (such as being expelled, dismissed or demoted) as a result of the rules being broken
Mr Williamson said: “Free speech underpins our democratic society and our universities have a long and proud history of being places where students and academics can express themselves freely, challenge views and cultivate an open mind.
“But I am deeply worried about the chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring.
“That is why we must strengthen free speech in higher education, by bolstering the existing legal duties and ensuring strong, robust action is taken if these are breached.”
The responses from those in the education sector were mixed.
University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady said: “It is extraordinary that in the midst of a global pandemic the government appears more interested in fighting phantom threats to free speech than taking action to contain the real and present danger which the virus poses to staff and students.
“In reality the biggest threats to academic freedom and free speech come not from staff and students, or from so-called ‘cancel culture’, but from ministers’ own attempts to police what can and cannot be said on campus, and a failure to get to grips with the endemic job insecurity and managerialist approaches which mean academics are less able to speak truth to power.”
Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, vice president for higher education at the National Union of Students, said: “There is no evidence of a freedom of expression crisis on campus, and students’ unions are constantly taking positive steps to help facilitate the thousands of events that take place each year.”
She added: “We recognise this announcement as an opportunity for us to prove once and for all that there is not an extensive problem with freedom of expression across higher education.”
A Universities UK spokeswoman said: “There are already significant legal duties placed on universities to uphold freedom of speech and universities are required to have a code of practice on free speech and to update this regularly.”
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, said: “Free speech and academic freedom are essential to teaching and research. Universities and colleges have legal duties to protect both free speech and academic freedom, and their compliance with these responsibilities forms an important part of their conditions of registration with the OfS.
“We will ensure that the changes that result from today’s proposals reinforce these responsibilities and embed the widest definition of free speech within the law.”