Johnson: 'universities facing free speech challenge'

Johnson: 'universities facing free speech challenge'

The universities minister Jo Johnson has used a Boxing Day speech to highlight the issue of free speech and debate in universities, and the role of the new regulator, the Office for Students, which comes into being next week. 

Speaking at the Limmud Festival, a Jewish cultural festival in Birmingham, on 26th December, Johnson said universities were facing a "particularly worrying challenge" to their role as "bastions of liberalism", with issues such as the removal of books deemed offensive from university libraries.

"Our universities, rather like the Festival we are today, should be places that open minds not close them, where ideas can be freely challenged and prejudices exposed," he said. "But in universities in America and increasingly in the United Kingdom, there are countervailing forces of censorship, where groups have sought to stifle those who do not agree with them in every way under the banner of 'safe spaces' or 'no-platforming'.

"However well-intentioned, the proliferation of such safe spaces, the rise of no-platforming, the removal of ‘offensive’ books from libraries and the drawing up of ever more extensive lists of banned 'trigger' words are undermining the principle of free speech in our universities."

He warned: "Shield young people from controversial opinions, views that challenge their most profoundly held beliefs or simply make them uncomfortable, and you are on the slippery slope that ends up with a society less able to make scientific breakthroughs, to be innovative and to resist injustice."

But Johnson's speech attracted criticism from shadow education minister Angela Rayner who said: "It is a false choice to suggest that universities are either places of free enquiry or places of safety. They can be both. Denying access to groups and individuals who incite violence and hatred is a perfectly sensible step to keep students safe from harm.

"The NUS have a 'no-platform' policy for a handful of racist, anti-Semitic and extremist organisations, some of which the government itself has also banned. If Jo Johnson is opposed to that policy, he needs to be clear which of those groups he actually wants on campus. Otherwise this so-called announcement is just another meaningless gimick from a government that has run out of ideas."

According to the Times, the new Office for Students will become fully operational in April, with Nicola Dandridge, former head of Universities UK, as its chief executive. The regulator will use a range of measures, including fining universities. if freedom of speech is not upheld by staff or students.