The education secretary has given universities a final warning to guard free speech or face legislation.
In an article for The Times, Gavin Williamson says that universities must make clear that intimidation of academics by student or other protesters is unacceptable, issue strong sanctions and work with police to prosecute those who try to disrupt events.
He is considering greater regulation, possibly through law, if universities do not promote “unambiguous guidance” on academic freedom and free speech. One measure under consideration is to “clarify the duties” of students’ unions.
“Universities themselves could be doing much more in this area,” Mr Williamson writes. “The right to civil and non-violent protest is sacrosanct. However, intimidation, violence or threats of violence are crimes.
“Universities must make clear that intimidation is unacceptable and show a zero-tolerance approach to the perpetrators, applying strong sanctions and working with police where appropriate to secure prosecutions.”
He points to research in November which suggested that students wanted to hear a range of views. He adds: “If universities don’t take action, the government will. If necessary, I’ll look at changing the underpinning legal framework, perhaps to clarify the duties of students’ unions or strengthen free speech rights. I don’t take such changes lightly, but I believe we have a responsibility to do whatever necessary to defend this right.”
Universities have repeatedly claimed that there is no problem with free speech on campuses. Questions have been asked about the cancellation of talks by academics whose views are controversial with students.
Protests are sometimes led by campaigners who support gender self-identification. The feminist artist Rachel Ara had a talk at Oxford Brookes University cancelled at short notice in November after students accused her of prejudice against transgender people.
A seminar on criminal justice and gender issues was cancelled at the University of Essex after organisers said that trans activists had threatened to “obstruct” debate. Jo Phoenix, professor of criminology at the Open University, had been due to speak.
Last year the Open University cancelled a conference on prison reform after trans activists said that they would protest. The organisers had said that trans women in prison should be kept apart from biologically female inmates.
Mr Williamson says that too often “activists’ threats are able to shut down events”.
He also voices concern that universities have caved in to petitions of students and academics who oppose the research interests of others.