A piece in today’s Times:
Students must be exposed to outlandish, provocative or uncomfortable ideas at university, the education secretary said yesterday as he welcomed a vote by academics forcing Cambridge to change its policy on free speech.
Gavin Williamson said that other universities should pay heed as young people need to make up their own minds and must learn to think independently.
Cambridge changed a draft policy which said that opposing views should be “respected” by students, lecturers and visitors. The policy now says other views must be “tolerated”. Academics said the original wording would create a “vague and authoritarian” policy which would stifle debate and could raise the threat of disciplinary action or sacking if academics were deemed disrespectful.
More than 1,200 academics — at least 77 per cent of those who voted on Wednesday — were in favour of that and two related amendments to the policy that the university wanted to introduce. The other amendments made it harder to disinvite speakers.
Mr Williamson told The Times Red Box: “Higher education is not about being spoon-fed lines and parroting them back just to pass an exam. It is about weighing up facts, challenging ideas and perhaps eventually coming up with a new world view.
“We need all students’ unions and providers to promote and enable free speech and we expect them to act on the guidance we have given them.
“What we can’t have is for universities to decide whose words will be handed down to the next generation and whose words will be unheard.”
Mr Williamson said that universities had a duty to uphold free speech. “There is already an extensive regulatory framework governing freedom of speech in higher education, and ensuring legal limits to free speech are respected,” he said. “The law places an obligation on providers that they take ‘all reasonably practicable steps’ to secure freedom of speech ‘within the law’.
“The principle of free speech with certain, specific limits is enshrined in law. This is not to say that every speaker’s views are equally worthy, what it does acknowledge is that everyone should be free to have their say.
“It does not fear those who are eccentric or unorthodox or allow silencing of dissenting voices.”
One Cambridge academic complained that the new policy made it easier to give a platform to bigots.
Priyamvada Gopal, an English professor, tweeted: “A government-ordered regulation suppressing protest (under the guise of free speech) has been pushed through with enthusiasm by a large number of traditionalist (mostly) men.
“The amusing thing is it’s startling that people vote for something on the direction of Tory universities minister Michelle Donelan and then claim they’re doing it because they’re on the ‘left’.”
Rows have broken out about freedom of speech after some high profile speakers were “disinvited” from campuses as their views were deemed offensive.
Mr Williamson urged universities to follow the lead of Cambridge, which now has a code that will allow free speech to be restricted only in extreme circumstances.
Arif Ahmed, a philosophy lecturer who put forward the amendments, said: “This process shows that the number of people in the university who are illiberal are a loud but small minority. The vast majority are fundamentally committed to free speech.”
The university’s leaders denied that they had been forced to backtrack.
Stephen Toope, the vice-chancellor, said: “Freedom of speech is a right that sits at the heart of the university.”
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