Universities must “open minds, not close them” and face tough new penalties if they do not promote freedom of speech, Jo Johnson will warn today.
Students should expect to encounter controversial opinions and “frank and rigorous discussions”, the universities minister will argue.
His defence of open debate comes amid a row at Oxford University, where dozens of academics have criticised a professor for arguing that Britain’s imperial history was not entirely shameful. Nigel Biggar, regius professor of moral and pastoral theology at the university, has been criticised by colleagues and students after writing an article in The Times calling for a more nuanced appraisal.
In a speech to be delivered in Birmingham at the Limmud Festival, a celebration of Jewish learning and culture, Mr Johnson sets out the dangers of shielding students from views that differ from their own through “safe spaces” and “no-platforming”.
Next year the newly created Office for Students (OfS) will be given the power to fine, suspend or deregister universities that fail to uphold free speech.
“Universities should be places that open minds, not close them, where ideas can be freely challenged,” Mr Johnson says. “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.”