There is growing concern in Government circles at attempts by certain student groups to stifle free speech on campuses. Last year, former Home Secretary Amber Rudd was “no-platformed” at an event at Oxford University, leading to its last minute cancellation. The Education Secretary Gavin Williamson warned of the “chilling effect” of what he called “silencing” in universities.
The new role is part of a series of proposals, to be announced on Tuesday, aimed at strengthening academic freedom in England’s universities.
The champion will sit on the Office for Students’ board and will be responsible for ensuring free speech on campuses.
Mr Williamson said: “Free speech underpins our democratic society and our universities have a long and proud history of being places where students and academics can express themselves freely, challenge views and cultivate an open mind.
“But I am deeply worried about the chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring.
“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 Government intends to impose legal obligations on universities to actively promote free speech.
The Office for Students will be given powers to impose fines on any institution that fails to implement the new rules.
Additionally, student unions will have to ensure that lawful free speech is secured for members and visiting speakers.
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Individuals will be able to sue universities if their rights to freedom of speech are curtailed in any way.
In a blistering attack in an op-ed for the publication Reaction, Scottish columnist Gerald Walker accused British universities of becoming “woke” corporations.
Mr Walker, who worked as a policy adviser to former Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Forsyth, said: “Today, having originally embraced that corporate culture, to the detriment of scholarly ideals, universities have followed the same trajectory – or, more accurately, pioneered it – as their business counterparts: they have become ‘woke’ corporations.
“In past centuries there was one forum in Europe, regardless of conditions elsewhere, in which free speech, civil exchange of ideas and lively debate ensured intellectual freedom and that was the university community.
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“Today, in the whole of our society, there is no place where freedom of speech and thought are more violently repressed than in our universities.”
Number 10’s proposals have drawn withering criticism from university staff organisations.
Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, told the BBC: “In reality the biggest threats to academic freedom and free speech come not from staff and students, nor from so-called ‘cancel culture’, but from ministers’ own attempts to police what can and cannot be said on campus.”