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Universities ‘must uphold free speech or face blacklisting’ – Minister

Liz Bates

2 min read

Universities must guarantee free speech or face penalties from the new higher education regulator, the Universities Minister has said. 

Jo Johnson set out the plans in an interview with The Times, in a bid to address recent controversies around speakers being banned from campus debates.

Mr Johnson told the newspaper that any institutions failing to uphold free speech would face tough penalties from the higher education regulator, such as fines or in extreme cases, blacklisting.

It comes after speakers including feminist writer Germaine Greer and human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell sparked protest from students over their views on transgender issues.

Mr Johnson said: “Freedom of speech is a fundamentally British value which is undermined by a reluctance of institutions to embrace healthy vigorous debate. Our universities must open minds not close them.”

He added: “She [Germaine Greer] has every right, if invited, to give views on difficult and awkward subjects. 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.”

The new regulator, the Office for Students, will enforce the rules when it gets its legal powers in April next year.

The organisation’s chairman, Sir Michael Barber, said: “It’s really important that universities are a place where diverse opinions can be expressed, and that must include unpopular ones, otherwise it’s not really diverse.”

Referring to a campaign by Oxford students to have a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the Victorian businessman who founded Rhodesia, removed, he added: “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 Universities Minister outlined other new measures in a shake up to the sector, including two-year degrees, a brake on degree grade inflation and curbs on cheating and plagiarism.

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