Universities that use “no platforming” and “safe spaces” to shut down free speech could face action from the new higher education regulator, the Government has announced.
Jo Johnson, the universities minister, said young people and students need to “accept the legitimacy of healthy vigorous debate” as he outlined plans for the Office for Students (OfS).
According to the Times, this could include powers to fine, suspend or deregister universities if they do not meet a statutory duty to commit to free speech in their governance documents.
But any proposals will form part of a consultation to help establish how the OfS will operate in its regulation of English universities.
It will be able to hold universities to account on their duty to secure free speech, ensuring it is upheld by staff, student unions and student societies, the Department for Education (DfE) said.
In an interview, Mr Johnson told the Times: “No-platforming and safe spaces shouldn’t be used to shut down legitimate free speech.
“Our young people and students need to accept the legitimacy of healthy vigorous debate in which people can disagree with one another.
“That’s how ideas get tested, prejudices exposed and society advances.
“Universities mustn’t be places in which free speech is stifled.”
Launching the consultation, he added: “Free speech is one of the foundations on which our higher education tradition is built. It goes to the heart of our democratic values and is a principle I know universities hold dear.
“I know there is good practice out there, and am proud that some of our university leaders and academics have publicly defended free speech. But there are still examples of censorship where groups have sought to stifle those who do not agree with them.
“This is why I want the OfS to work with universities to encourage a culture of openness and debate and ensure that those with different backgrounds or perspectives can flourish in a higher education environment.”
Sir Michael Barber, chairman of the OfS, which gets its legal powers in April, said: “Ensuring freedom of speech and learning how to disagree with diverse opinions and differing views of the world is a fundamental aspect of learning at university. The OfS will promote it vigorously.”
Mr Johnson also criticised a campaign by Oxford University students to take down a statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes, who founded Rhodesia, which became Zimbabwe after freeing itself from British rule in 1980.
“The mark of a civilisation is a knowledge and understanding of your own past,” the minister said.
“I don’t think tearing down statues contributes to a proper understanding of how our societies and cultures have developed. It’s a dishonest way of assessing your own society.”
UK news in pictures
17 October 2017
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16 October 2017
A red sun appears in Mid-Wales before storm Ophelia hits
Paul Williams / Alamy Live News
15 October 2017
The Duchess of Cambridge dances with Paddington Bear as they attend a charities forum event at Paddington train station in London on October 16, 2017.
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15 October 2017
Large waves crash along sea defences and the harbour as storm Ophelia approaches Porthleven in Cornwall, south west Britain
14 October 2017
Hillary Clinton gives a speech as she is presented with a Honorary Doctorate of Law at Swansea University in Swansea, Wales. The former US secretary of state and 2016 American presidential candidate is also visiting the UK to promote her new book, ‘What Happened’
13 October 2017
A lone protestor demonstrates outside Workmen Cuadrilla’s shale gas fracking drilling rig near Westby in Blackpool. Engineers have begun to build the new rig at the site off Preston New Road in preparation for extracting gas. The site will be the first in the UK to extract shale gas since 2011
11 October 2017
Photographs of missing Syrians are displayed as people, including a group of Syrian women, stand atop a double-decker bus during a demonstration by ‘Families for Freedom’ in Parliament Square in London
9 October 2017
Workmen erect scaffolding around the Elizabeth Tower, commonly known called Big Ben, during ongoing renovations to the Tower and the Houses of Parliament
6 October 2017
An order of service is carried ahead of the funeral service for Coronation Street actress Liz Dawn, real name Sylvia Ann Ibbetson, outside Salford Cathedral. A former Woolworths shop girl from Leeds, who first set foot on Weatherfield’s famous cobbles in 1974, Dawn, who had four children, died peacefully last week at home with her family around her.
5 October 2017
Melanie Kramers of Oxfam poses while wearing a mask of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, with assorted props used in political campaigns, in the store room at Oxfam’s headquarters in London. The props have all been used in the charity’s campaigns over the years to raise awareness of issues affecting people in poverty. Today marks 75 years since Oxfam’s founding in the middle of the Second World War
4 October 2017
A visitor poses in front of an art work by Czech Repblic artist Anna Hulacova entitled ‘Ascension Mark I’ during a photocall for the Frieze Art Fair in London
2 October 2017
Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond arrives to speak at the Conservative Party’s conference in Manchester
1 October 2017
Protesters holding flags and placards demonstrate along Oxford Street during the annual Ashura march in London. Thousands of protesters march through London today to mark Ashura and celebrate the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Ashura is a Muslim festival of remembrance that falls on the tenth day of Muharram in the Islamic calendar
30 September 2017
Protesters hold up placards during the London March for Choice, calling for the legalising of abortion in Ireland after the referendum announcement, outside the Embassy of Ireland in central London
Chris J Ratcliffe/AFP
29 September 2017
Former UKIP leader Paul Nuttall (C) speaks with delegates at the UKIP annual conference being held at the The Riviera International Centre in Torquay
27 September 2017
England and West Indies fans enjoy themselves during the 4th Royal London One Day International between England and West Indies at The Kia Oval in London
26 September 2017
Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn takes photographs during Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Rebecca Long-Bailey’s speech in the main hall, on day three of the annual Labour Party Conference in Brighton
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
24 September 2017
Naked bathers enter the water as they take part in the North East Skinny Dip at Druridge bay in Druridge, England. The popular annual event takes place around the autumn equinox at Druridge Bay as the sun rises. Participant registration fees have been pledged to the mental health charity MIND.
23 September 2017
Rollo Maughfling, Archdruid of Stonehenge and Britain (R) conducts a ceremony as druids, pagans and revellers gather in the centre at Stonehenge, hoping to see the sun rise, as they take part in a autumn equinox celebrations at the ancient neolithic monument of Stonehenge near Amesbury in Wiltshire, England. Several hundred people gathered at sunrise ar the famous historic stone circle, a UNESCO listed ancient monument, to celebrate the equinox which is a specific moment in time that occurs twice a year when the Earth tilts neither towards (summer) or away (winter) from the sun in either the northern or southern hemisphere. Although yesterday marked the actual meteorological calendar change from summer to autumn, for druids, the following dawn is when they celebrate ‘the dawning of the new season’ following the day of equal night, which it is named after.
22 September 2017
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May delivers her Brexit speech at the Complesso Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Italy. British Prime Minister Theresa May will seek to unlock Brexit talks on September 22, after Brussels demanded more clarity on the crunch issues of budget payments and EU citizens’ rights
21 September 2017
People protest against the actions of the Spanish government in front of the Spanish consulate in Edinburgh. Spanish police stormed ministries and buildings belonging to Catalonia’s regional government yesterday, in an attempt to try and put a stop to the region’s independence referendum
20 September 2017
One of the final 55m turbine blades is manoeuvred into position. The last of 116 wind turbines have been installed at the Rampion Offshore Wind Farm 13 kms off the Brighton Coast. It will provide enough electricity to supply the equivalent of half the homes in Sussex
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
16 September 2017
An armed police officer patrols in Horse Guards Parade in London. An 18-year-old man has been arrested in Dover in connection with yesterday’s terror attack on Parsons Green station in which 30 people were injured. The UK terror threat level has been raised to ‘critical’
Jack Taylor/Getty Images
13 September 2017
Demonstrators hold banners during a protest to lobby MPs to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK, after Brexit, outside the Houses of Parliament
12 September 2017
Rupert van der Werff, Summer Place Auctions’ Natural History specialist, moves a one-year-old baby mammoth skeleton at Summers Place Auctions on September 12, 2017 in Billingshurst. A family of four mammoths, found together during building works near the Siberian city of Tomsk in 2002, will be on sale on November 21, 2017, and are expected to sell in the region of £ 250,000 – 400,000
Rob Stothard/Getty Images
11 September 2017
Members of the Royal Navy carry supplies on board the amphibious assault ship HMS Ocean at the Naval Base in Gibraltar before leaving to provide humanitarian assistance and vital aid to British Overseas Territories and Commonwealth partners affected by Hurricane Irma. Britain has pledged £32 million (35 million euros, $42 million) in aid and sent hundreds of troops, supplies and rescue equipment on several flights to the British territories in the Caribbean since the disaster
JORGE GUERRERO/AFP/Getty Images
10 September 2017
His Holiness The Dalai Lama holds the hand of Richard Moore as he gives a public talk on the theme of ‘Compassion in Action’ to celebrate 20 years of the Children in Crossfire initiative in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. The Dalai Lama is the patron of the Children in Crossfire charity which was founded by Richard Moore. Mr Moore was blinded by a plastic bullet fired by a British Soldier during the Troubles in Derry.
9 September 2017
Participants in the annual Jane Austen Regency Costumed Parade dance on the lawn of the historic Georgian Royal Crescent before they walk through the city centre in Bath, England. This year, the annual event coincided with the 200th anniversary of 19th century author’s death and saw hundreds of people parade through city centre streets dressed in regency costume. The event marks the start of a 10-day Jane Austen festival that celebrates the 19th century author who lived in the city from 1801 to 1806 and set two of her six published novels, ‘Northanger Abbey’ and ‘Persuasion’, in Bath.
8 September 2017
Festival goers brave the wind and the rain at Bestival festival on the Lulworth Estate in Dorset
Matt Cardy/Getty Images
7 September 2017
Conservators and museum staff pose as they inspect the Manchester suffragette banner hanging in the conservation department of Manchester People’s History Museum. For nearly 50 years the banner lay undiscovered in a Leeds charity shop. It will go on public display next year to mark the centenary of women gaining the vote
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
6 September 2017
Protesters wave placards in Parliament Square during a protest against a Government pay cap in London. Thousands of protesters made up of nurses and supporters hold a demonstration in Westminster today calling on the Government to end the 1% cap on public sector pay
Jack Taylor/Getty Images
5 September 2017
U Soe Win, the great-grandson of Burma’s last King, visits Buckingham Palace
John Phillips/Getty Images
4 September 2017
Protestors demonstrate in support of workers at British McDonalds restaurants striking over pay and other industrial relations issues, near the Houses of Parliament in London
3 September 2017
World War II veteran from the Auxiliary Territorial Service Betty Webb (R) joins other veterans who worked at Bletchley Park and its outstations for a group picture in front of Bletchley Park Mansion during an annual reunion in Milton Keynes, England. Bletchley Park was the Government Code and Cypher School’s (GC&CS) main codebreaking centre during World War II and the site where codebreakers famously cracked the German’s Enigma and Lorenz cyphers.
2 September 2017
50,000 people making the foot crossing over new Queensferry road bridge
1 September 2017
Britain’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, is greeted by Emperor Akihito of Japan during her visit to the Royal Palace in Tokyo, Japan. Mrs May is on the third and final day of her visit to Japan where she has discussed a number of issues including trade and security
Carl Court/Getty Images
Sir Michael supported Mr Johnson, telling the newspaper: “If you start demolishing statues, where does it all stop? I can think of lots of terrible things that Oliver Cromwell did, but I’m glad he stands outside the House of Commons.
“I can think of even worse things that Richard the Lionheart did, and he stands outside the House of Lords.”
The consultation will also look at forcing universities to publish and justify high salaries for senior staff, improving transparency on how students can transfer between courses, and compulsory participation in the Teaching Excellence Framework for universities with more than 500 students.
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