Donelan: academic freedom bill critics ‘on wrong side of history’

Universities minister reaffirms plans to tackle campus ‘cancel culture’ and condemns ‘upsurge in physical threats’ against controversial speakers

April 26, 2022
Michelle Donelan speaks at THE Campus Live 2021
Source: Phillip Waterman
Michelle Donelan speaks at THE Campus Live 2021

University leaders and academics risk becoming seen as a “small cabal of the intolerant” on the “wrong side of history” unless they back the government’s campus free speech bill, England’s higher education minister has warned, after passing measures to continue the controversial legislation.

In a speech at the centre-right thinktank Policy Exchange on 26 April, Michelle Donelan said it was important that vice-chancellors show their support for proposed legislation that “would put a duty on universities to promote free speech and academic freedom, not just protect it”.

“Let me be clear, this is not an issue for vice-chancellors to shy away from,” said Ms Donelan, who added “this is not an issue that they will be allowed to shy away from”.

Addressing “vice-chancellors, university staff and students”, she urged them “not [to] be on the wrong side of history – do not allow the history books to record your name as part of the small cabal of the intolerant”.

The warning follows the passing of a House of Commons motion on 25 April that allows the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill to be carried over to the next session of parliament, which Ms Donelan described as “a restatement of this government’s intention to legislate on this hugely important issue, fulfilling our manifesto promise to the British people”.

It follows speculation that the bill, which has faced criticism over claims that it would allow Holocaust deniers and extremists to sue universities if they were no platformed, might be ditched because of a lack of political support within Downing Street, following the departure of former policy chief Munira Murza.

However, Ms Donelan said the legislation would go ahead to combat the “real threat, that academic freedom in [universities] is being undermined in a way that endangers our entire democracy” – describing freedom of speech as the “cornerstone of Western democracy” and the “beating heart on which all of our other freedoms rest”.

“Many of the fundamental ideas that helped to build today’s society were once considered controversial, fringe ideas that only reached prominence through open debate on the campuses of universities up and down the country,” explained Ms Donelan.

But an “upsurge” in “threats, intimidation and harassment” of academics and external speakers that had led to “the shutting-down of free speech” in some instances now meant that the government was “putting pen to paper in legislative action to once and for all challenge the forces that shut debate down”, she said.

“We are standing up for free speech and the open exchange of ideas in our universities like never before,” said Ms Donelan, stating that it was “completely deplorable that balaclava-clad protesters forced a female academic, Kathleen Stock, to stay off campus under threats of physical violence” and that an “intolerant mob” had “hounded” the Israeli ambassador outside an event at the London School of Economics.

“Attempts to erode free speech need to be challenged head-on, which is what the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will do,” said Ms Donelan, who said she wanted to “effect a culture change that will reverberate through the sector, from the student union bar right up to the vice-chancellor’s office”.

The new legislation includes students’ unions – not covered by the 1986 Education Act, which requires universities to uphold free speech where possible; Ms Donelan said that would remove a “giant loophole” in existing legislation.

Taking a swipe at campus “wokery and political correctness” that had led to calls to cancel historical figures such as Isaac Newton, Francis Drake and William Gladstone, universities should return to their role as a “marketplace for ideas” and discussion, Ms Donelan said.

Thanking the “sector as a whole” for its support on the issue, she added that it would be a “bill that the rest of the world will take note of” and was about “stamping out the cancel culture that has been allowed to build over recent years”.

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Reader's comments (1)

This is most improper: it is up to individuals to decide what their opinions are on proposed legislation. Obviously if passed it becomes an obligation to obey it or to choose to make a stand and bear the penalties... but anyone who wishes is free to express their views whither or not it ever becomes the law of the land.