Students at some universities have drawn up a list of ‘trigger words’ and demanded books containing them should be removed from the library, Jo Johnson has said.
The universities minister warned institutions they have four months to clamp down on student zealots who restrict free speech on campuses.
Mr Johnson said he has seen too many ‘worrying’ incidents of groups trying to ‘stifle those who do not agree with them’.
He warned institutions that they have a duty to intervene and ensure differing points of view can be heard – however controversial.
And speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Johnson said students at one university had created an extensive list of ‘trigger words’ and demanded any books containing them be removed from the library.
A new regulator, the Office for Students, will come into being in April 2018 and will have the power to punish universities which do not adequately safeguard free speech. Those falling short could be fined or even deregistered – rendering them effectively unable to operate.
It follows incidents in which student unions and societies have banned speakers because they deemed their views ‘offensive’.
In a speech to the Limmud Festival in Birmingham, Mr Johnson said free speech and open debate must be a central principle of all universities. ‘Universities should be places that open minds not close them, where ideas can be freely challenged,’ he 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.
‘That is why the new Office for Students will go even further to ensure that universities promote freedom of speech within the law.’ As a condition of registration to the Office for Students, the Department for Education is proposing that universities benefiting from public money must show that their governance is consistent with the principle of free speech.
The OfS will have a range of powers if freedom of speech is not upheld, including ‘monetary penalties’ and deregistering institutions.
When a university is deregistered it means it is not recognised as an English higher education provider, cannot receive direct Whitehall funding and will not be able to award its own degrees.
Many student unions believe universities need to be ‘safe spaces’ where young people can be shielded from views they may find upsetting. But critics say being shielded from the realities of the world does not prepare students for the challenges they face after graduation.
However, Mr Johnson also reiterated that free speech must not be used as a ‘smokescreen’ by those who wish to limit the rights of others.
He said universities must ensure there is no place within higher education for ‘hatred, extremism or any form of discrimination or racism, including anti-semitism’.
He said: ‘A racist or anti-semitic environment is by definition an illiberal one that is completely in opposition to the liberal tradition of our universities.’
Source: Daily Mail