Universities could be hit with fines for stifling freedom of speech on campus, the Education Secretary said, as ministers step up their “culture war”.
Gavin Williamson will appoint a new “free speech champion” and give greater powers to the higher education regulator to sanction English universities and students’ unions for barring speakers from campus or dismissing academics over contentious issues.
But critics slammed the Government of battling “phantom threats” to free speech whilst students struggle to cope with the fallout of the pandemic.
The new crackdown also comes despite research by a parliamentary committee in 2018, which found there was limited evidence of issues with free speech in universities.
The influential Human Rights Committee said: “Any inhibition on lawful free speech is serious, and there have been such incursions, but we did not find the wholesale censorship of debate in universities which media coverage has suggested.”
Under the plans, universities would be required by law to actively promote free speech and the Office for Students would be able to fine institutions for breaches.
People who are sacked or barred from campus would be able to seek compensation through the courts if the decision was found to be a breach of free speech duties.
Mr Williamson said he was “deeply worried about the chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring”.
He added: “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 move marks the latest escalation in the Government’s “culture war” after it announced new laws to ensure statues and plaques cannot be removed without planning permission and consultation.
Last month, Boris Johnson’s spokesman was forced to admit he was unsure whether the PM knew what “woke” meant – despite Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick justifying the new law as a response to a “baying mob” and “woke worthies” who sought to remove statues of figures from Britain’s colonial past, including people with links to the slave trade.
Labour accused the Government of “manufacturing this debate to distract from their own failures”.
Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green said: “Students are worrying about when they can return to campus, how to pay their rent and how they will get a job.
“The government has abandoned them throughout this crisis and is manufacturing this debate to distract from their own failures.”
Jo Grady, General Secretary of the University and College Union, 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.”
Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, of the National Union of Students (NUS), said there was “no evidence of a freedom of expression crisis on campus”.
She added: “At a time when students are facing untold hardship the government would be much better advised to focus on providing the practical support that students desperately need, through maintenance grants, no detriment policies and funding to eradicate digital poverty, rather than attacking the very institutions that have stepped up to fill the gaps in support being offered.”
A Universities UK spokeswoman said: “UK universities are committed to promoting and protecting free speech, which we see as critical to the success of this country’s higher education system.
“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.”