Universities must be places that “open minds, not close them”, Jo Johnson is warning.
Students must be able to challenge controversial opinions, according to the Universities Minister, who says there are dangers to shielding students from differing views under the banner of “no-platforming” or “safe spaces”.
In a speech at the Limmud Festival in Birmingham, a celebration of Jewish learning and culture, he will warn that free speech is a key part of university life
“Universities should be places that open minds, not close them, where ideas can be freely challenged,” Mr Johnson will say.
“In universities in America and worryingly in the UK, we have seen examples of groups seeking to stifle those who do not agree with them.
“We must not allow this to happen. Young people should have the resilience and confidence to challenge controversial opinions and take part in open, frank and rigorous discussions. That is why the new regulator, the Office for Students, will go even further to ensure that universities promote freedom of speech within the law.”
His comments come amid an ongoing debate about free speech at universities, and a number of reports of speakers, debates, literature and organisations being opposed or criticised, often by student unions, societies or particular groups of students.
Mr Johnson will also say that institutions must ensure there is no place for hatred, discrimination, extremism or racism.
“A racist or anti-Semitic environment is by definition an illiberal one that is completely in opposition the liberal tradition of our universities,” he will tell the festival.
Under government plans, universities that fail to protect free speech could face fines.
Institutions must ensure that students can take part in ‘’rigorous, open debate’’, or risk action from the new higher education watchdog, the Office for Students, ministers announced in October.
The proposals, which are open for consultation, could also see universities facing action including suspension and deregulation, if they do not protect free speech.
“No-platforming” is a practice in which a group or individuals seen to have unacceptable or offensive views are banned from taking part in a public debate or meeting, while “safe space” policies aim to ensure all students feel able to express themselves and are protected from views and language they find offensive, as well as discrimination.
But there are concerns that these policies are increasingly affecting free speech, and are being used to prevent speakers and discussions that some find uncomfortable or disagreeable.
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “Universities are absolutely committed to promoting and securing free speech and will not allow legitimate speech to be stifled. There is already a legal duty on the higher education sector to secure free speech within the law and universities take these responsibilities very seriously.
“They have a duty, not only to secure freedom of speech, but also to protect the safety of students and staff. This is not always easy to balance, but universities are becoming increasingly experienced in this area and have policies in place.
“It is important that universities do not become discussion-free zones. They must continue to be places where difficult topics are discussed and where people, however controversial their views, should be allowed to speak within the law, and their views challenged openly.”