Don’t shield students from opinions they don’t agree with, Britain’s universities minister Jo Johnson warns

Don’t shield students from opinions they don’t agree with, Britain’s universities minister Jo Johnson warns
The Office for Students  will crack down on universities that fail to adequately safeguard free speech.

 

Students must not be shielded from views they disagree with under the banner of “safe spaces”, Britain’s universities minister has said, as he warns that the practise is “closing minds”.

The “worrying” trend of students seeking to “stifle” opinions that are counter to their own has swept across American campuses and is now gathering pace at British universities,  Jo Johnson will say on Tuesday.

Universities minister Jo Johnson.

In a speech at the Limmud Festival in Birmingham, a celebration of Jewish learning and culture, he will warn that free speech is a key part of university life.

“Universities should be places that open minds, not close them, where ideas can be freely challenged,” 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.”

He said that the new regulator for higher education, the Office for Students (OFS), will crack down on universities that fail to adequately safeguard free speech.

The watchdog will have new powers to punish universities which fall short, which could include fines or even being deregistered, which would effectively render them unable to operate.

Mr Johnson will say that free speech must not be used as a smokescreen by those who wish to limit the expression of others.

His comments come amid an ongoing debate about free speech at universities, and a number of reports of speakers, debates, literature and organisations being opposed, criticised or banned altogether.

“No-platforming” is a practice in which a group or individuals seen to have unacceptable or offensive views are banned from taking part in a public debate or meeting.

Students at Cardiff University tried to “no-platform” the feminist Germaine Greer on account of her comments about transgender people, and the veteran gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has also been a victim of “no-platforming”.

Meanwhile “safe space” policies aim to ensure all students feel able to express themselves and are protected from views and language they find offensive, as well as discrimination.

Earlier this year, Sussex University’s free speech society was told by the students’ union that its inaugural guest must submit his speech in advance for vetting, in case it violates their safe space policy.

It also emerged that King’s College London hired “safe space marshals” to police controversial speaker events on campus and take “immediate action” if anyone expresses opinions that breech the safe space policy.

Mr Johnson will also say that institutions must ensure there is no place for hatred, discrimination, extremism or racism.

“A racist or anti-Semitic environment is by definition an illiberal one that is completely in opposition the liberal tradition of our universities,” he will tell the festival.

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said that universities are “absolutely committed to promoting and securing free speech”, adding that they “will not allow legitimate speech to be stifled”.

There is already a legal duty on the higher education sector to secure free speech and universities “take these responsibilities very seriously”, he said.

Mr Jarvis added: “They have a duty, not only to secure freedom of speech, but also to protect the safety of students and staff. This is not always easy to balance, but universities are becoming increasingly experienced in this area and have policies in place.

“It is important that universities do not become discussion-free zones.

They must continue to be places where difficult topics are discussed and where people, however controversial their views, should be allowed to speak within the law, and their views challenged openly.”

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/2017/12/26/dont-shield-students-opinions-dont-agree-universities-minister/

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