Former Conservative Education Secretary Justin Greening has poured cold water on government programs designed to strengthen speech security on university campuses in the UK.
One of his successors, Gavin Williamson, announced on Tuesday plans to appoint a “free speech and education freedom champion” to investigate possible violations, as well as new laws to help seek out distressed academics, students or visiting speakers.
Commenting on these plans, Greening, who was secretary of education between 2016 and 2018, seemed to dispel government warnings about the crisis of freedom of speech in universities. He told the Guardian: “Independent speech is very important. In my experience, as engines for discussing ideas and opinions, our universities already play a key role in overcoming it.”
Another former education secretary, David Blankett of Labor, who held the portfolio between 1997 and 2001, accused the government of using a sliding hammer to break a few nuts. “If there’s a small problem, I think, sorting this out should be done entirely for the university and the student unions.”
Asked why he thought the government had taken the approach, Lord Blankett said: “It’s about identity politics. They have identified an issue that has vibrations with voters and they have decided to exploit it. ”
Estelle Morris (2001-02), Plunkett’s successor, added: “Yes, I think there is a problem. This requires an address, but [the government’s approach] Seems incredibly bureaucratic and heavy-handed. The guns all seemed to come out of the cupboard at once.
“It’s about looking for a change in behavior and attitudes. These things are, in fact, very difficult to legislate. I get the feeling that you have to win the war of hearts and minds before you go heavy like this. ”
Another former education secretary, Conservative Kenneth Baker (1986-89), cautiously supported the move, but said he would have preferred to handle the universities themselves. “I think it’s very sad that such a move should be taken, but there is no doubt that some universities have no base.”
Robert Halfone, senior chairman of the Commons Academic Committee, said: “I think this is a good idea. There are many cases where there is no platform or obstacles to stop the proper discussion and debate.
“Unless any law is violated, universities should be a haven for discussing policy, politics or ideas, although some dislike it or disagree. We still need Voltaire – ‘I do not accept what you say, but I will defend your right to say it to death’ – in our higher education.”
In the middle Government programs It is a new free speech requirement for enrollment in universities and access to public funding, while the UK Office of Higher Education regulator (OfS) will have the power to impose fines if companies violate the condition.
The new legal obligations will be extended to student unions for the first time, and they too must take action to ensure that legal free speech is protected for members and visiting speakers. Under the plans, universities will be required by law to actively promote free speech.
There is skepticism in the field of higher education. David Bell, vice chancellor of the University of Sunderland and former permanent secretary of the Department of Education, said: “This proposal gives us no idea of the scale of the problem we want to solve. Without it, it is tempting to think that this is a huge reaction. ”
Another deputy, who did not want to be named, warned: “They are trying to wage a cultural war, but all they are doing is turning the youth against them.”