Williamson intervention on Oxford royal portrait ‘authoritarian’

Union says education’s secretary’s criticism of students is ‘dangerous’, as Magdalen president defends ‘democratic decision-making’ that led to removal

June 9, 2021
Education secretary Gavin Williamson
Source: UK Parliament
Education secretary Gavin Williamson

The University and College Union has criticised Gavin Williamson, the education secretary in the Westminster government, for his “dangerous” criticism of University of Oxford students over their decision to remove a portrait of the Queen from a common room.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said Mr Williamson “styles himself as a champion of free speech and academic freedom, but never misses an opportunity to attack staff and students who are merely exercising these rights”.

On 8 June, Mr Williamson said that the vote by members of the Magdalen College Middle Common Room, an organisation of postgraduate students, in favour of removing a portrait of the queen was “absurd”.

“She is the head of state and a symbol of what is best about the UK,” he tweeted.

The students voted in favour of removing the picture from the common room because it could appear as a symbol of colonialism and they wanted everyone using the communal space to feel welcome.

Dr Grady said Mr Williamson’s “continuing interference in universities, seeking to dictate what students can and cannot say, which speakers they should invite, and attacking rigorous historical research that diverges from the government’s propagandistic agenda, is not only absurd but dangerous”.

“Denouncing students for taking down a portrait of the Queen in their common room is another distraction from the disastrous, systemic failings this government has presided over in higher education, and a laughable nadir in Williamson’s authoritarian crusade,” she said.

The row came as the government progresses its Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which includes the appointment of a free speech and academic freedom champion to the board of the Office for Students, strengthens existing free speech duties on universities and the extension of them to students’ unions, and enables individuals to sue for compensation over breaches of free speech laws.

Dr Grady said that the incoming director for freedom of speech would “have their work cut out in dealing with the threat posed by Williamson to free speech on campus”, rather than students’ decoration choices.

“As university staff have already pointed out, this government doesn’t care about freedom of speech of campus, and its attempts to change the law should be seen as nothing other than a Trojan Horse for policing what students and staff can and cannot do,” Dr Grady said.

Dinah Rose, president of Magdalen College, Oxford, has defended the “democratic decision-making” that led to the removal of the portrait.

In a series of tweets, she said that the college “strongly supports free speech and political debate, and the [Middle Common Room’s] right to autonomy”.

“Being a student is about more than studying. It’s about exploring and debating ideas. It’s sometimes about provoking the older generation. Looks like that isn’t so hard to do these days,” she tweeted.

“So if you are one of the people currently sending obscene and threatening messages to the college staff, you might consider pausing, and asking yourself whether that is really the best way to show your respect for the Queen. Or whether she’d be more likely to support the traditions of free debate and democratic decision-making that we are keeping alive at Magdalen.”


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Reader's comments (1)

Perhaps it is because I give little importance to the mouthings of politicians, but I saw Williamsons' comments merely as expressing an opinion... surely even advocates of free speech would agree that he has the right to hold and express one. The MCR members at Magdelen have chosen to express their opinion, they can hardly complain when other people choose to do the same even if it is contrary to theirs. Or are we only allowed to speak out if we agree with their views and actions?