A Liberal Democrat MP and academic has warned against illiberal attitudes proliferating on British university campuses, citing as an example the cancellation of a talk by UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage in the face of protests.
Julian Huppert said that he was “alarmed” by an incident last October in which a talk by Mr Farage, organised by the department of politics and international studies at the University of Cambridge, was called off amid organised protests and the creation of a Facebook group lambasting the party’s politics.
The MP for Cambridge said that the Ukip leader had a “very unpleasant, negative and damaging view of the world”, but added that he thought Mr Farage “should be entitled to speak”.
“I don’t agree with Farage on most things. We should just disagree with him and persuade people through force of argument not to listen to him. I think there can be a very illiberal attitude [at universities]. People should be allowed to say things we don’t like,” Mr Huppert said.
Mr Huppert was speaking as the government’s Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill makes its way through Parliament. The legislation would place universities under a statutory duty “to have due regard, in the exercise of their functions, to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”, and would require institutions to consider government guidance when deciding who is allowed to speak on campus.
Claiming that the bill amounts to censorship, academics have pointed out the irony of bringing in such legislation at the same time as the government has been emphasising the importance of free speech after the recent terrorist attacks in Paris.
Mr Huppert said that it was important to find the right balance with the legislation.
“We should not have a system that should criminalise free speech, but actively encouraging people to commit acts of terror is not acceptable,” he said.
Meanwhile, Mr Huppert, a biologist on leave from his post as a lecturer at Cambridge, branded comments by several university vice-chancellors on the desirability of further increases in tuition fees as “very narrow and selfish”.
In 2013, Andrew Hamilton, vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, said that annual tuition fees of £9,000 did not “add up for Oxford” because the “real cost” of an undergraduate education at the institution was “at least £16,000”. Last year Sir Howard Newby, head of the University of Liverpool, called for the cap on fees to be scrapped.
“I think the whole system is fundamentally the wrong way to deal with higher education,” said Mr Huppert, one of the 21 Lib Dem MPs who voted against raising the fees cap in accordance with a pledge signed before the 2010 election.
“I can see that, taking a very narrow, selfish interest, [university leaders] might think it’s the right way to go. But I don’t think it’s the right way to try and defend our higher education system. I don’t think we want to follow the Americans down that road. It would not be in our best interests.”
Mr Huppert faces a battle to retain the seat he first won in 2010. The latest constituency polls have him close to level with his Labour Party rival, and the seat is a key target for Ed Miliband’s party.