Universities could face fines over ‘no-platforming’

Jo JohnsonImage copyright Getty Images

Universities must protect free speech and “open minds, not close them,” Universities Minister Jo Johnson will say in a speech in Birmingham later.

He will say “no-platforming”, the policy of banning controversial speakers, is stifling debate.

From next April, a new regulator – the Office for Students – will have the power to fine universities that fail to uphold free speech.

Universities UK has said it will not allow legitimate debate to be stifled.

In his speech on Tuesday, 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.”

What are ‘no-platforming’ and ‘safe space’ policies?

Image copyright FL-photography

“No-platforming” is the practice of banning certain groups from taking part in a debate if their views are considered to be offensive or unacceptable.

“Safe space” policies are intended to protect students from views and language they find offensive, including discrimination.

In 2016, nearly two thirds of university students believed the National Union of Students was right to have a “no-platform” policy.

That approach means people or groups on a banned list for holding racist or fascist views are not given a platform to speak on student union premises.

The NUS official no-platform list contains six groups including the BNP and Al-Muhajiroun, but individual unions and student groups can decide their own.

At Canterbury Christ Church University, an NUS representative refused to share a platform with LGBT activist Peter Tatchell, whom she regarded as having been racist and “transphobic”.

Mr Johnson will address the Limmud Festival, which celebrates Jewish learning and culture.

In his speech, Mr Johnson will say that the Office for Students will ensure universities promote “freedom of speech within the law”.

Proposals for the new body, which are open for consultation, could see universities being fined, suspended or deregistered, if they do not protect free speech within the law.

Universities UK chief executive Alistair Jarvis said: “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.”

He added that institutions also have a duty of care to the “safety of students and staff”.

Mr Johnson’s speech comes as one of the UK’s oldest universities has been criticised by academics for a project on the ethics of the British Empire.

Up to 60 Oxford University academics have signed a letter in opposition to “the agenda” of the project.

Image caption The study on the ethics of the British Empire is taking place at Christ Church, Oxford

The programme is led by Prof Nigel Biggar, who claimed in a recent article in The Times, there are aspects of empire Britain can be proud of.

A university spokesperson said “arguments and differing approaches” are to be expected, and defended Prof Biggar as an “entirely suitable” person to lead the “valid evidence-led academic” project.

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