"Cancel culture" risks jeopardising British universities’ global reputation as bastions of free speech, the Education Secretary has warned.

Gavin Williamson accused vice-chancellors of "unwittingly" allowing "chilling" practices that curtail free speech to take hold on campuses.  

Writing in The Telegraph, he said that "time and time again" he hears of instances where lecturers have been silenced or even threatened with dismissal for airing views that some find offensive.  

Mr Williamson said that universities in the UK have a "long and golden reputation" for protecting free speech, but warned that while reputations are hard won, they can be far more easily lost.  

"When students from all over the world flock to our universities, they do so on the expectation that they will be immersed in a broad range of views and opinions," he writes. "They do not expect to be prevented from hearing those views or even silenced before making them heard."  

On Monday, the Higher Education Bill – which will strengthen the protection of free speech on campus – will have its second reading in parliament.  

Mr Williamson cautioned against systems that allow lecturers or students to be anonymously reported for inadvertently causing offence and charging student societies security costs to invite speakers.  

Cambridge University chiefs recently came under fire over the launch of a new anonymous reporting tool which could lead to academics being sanctioned for committing a series of "micro-aggressions".  

The tool was taken offline after The Telegraph reported that its list of potential "micro-aggressions" included raising an eyebrow, giving backhanded compliments and referring to a woman as a girl.

Professor Stephen Toope, the vice-chancellor, apologised and said the site had been published in error.   

More than 60 universities use the same “Report and Support” tool which allows students to make anonymous complaints about lecturers.

Mr Williamson praised students and academics who have "stood up to defy the intolerant minority" who want to impose a “monoculture” of ideas on the rest of the institution.  

"Imagine a world in which Darwin had been prevented for putting forward his transformational ideas on evolution, because they caused offence – for they were considered deeply offensive by many at the time," he writes. "Imagine a world in which Gladstone, Newton and Hume are ‘cancelled’, such that students can no longer learn of their great achievements and inspirational ideas."

Earlier this year, ministers announced  a raft of new laws to bolster free speech at universities amid concerns about the rise of silencing and censoring both academics and students on campus.

One of the major legislative changes the Government plans to introduce would enable academics and students to seek compensation through the courts if their free speech has been impinged on.

This would give a new, legal recourse to students who have been expelled from their course, academics who have been dismissed from their posts, or speakers who have been "no-platformed" over their views.  

Under existing legislation, there is no specific right for individuals to seek compensation for breach of the freedom of speech duty.

While anyone could seek a judicial review of a university’s decision, this does not establish any private law rights.

This means academics and students have no recourse to justice when institutions breach their duty to uphold free speech, under section 43 of the Education Act 1986.

Under the new laws, which are being proposed as part of the Higher Education Bill, universities which stifle free speech will be fined and a new ‘Free Speech Champion’ will be given powers to defend free speech and academic freedom on campuses.

Other proposed changes to the law will ensure student unions, as well as universities, are subject to the duties to promote free speech.

‘Imagine a world in which Gladstone had been ‘cancelled”

By Gavin Williamson

Gavin Williamson says free speech can only be protected by cultural change

Credit: Andy Rain/Shutterstock

Free speech is a fundamental right upon which our freedom rests.

The ability to freely and openly discuss ideas, stand up for our beliefs and challenge conventional wisdom is an essential part of individual liberty, and crucial to the functioning of democracy.

And while free speech is vital throughout society, it is especially important in higher education, which has always and should always be a crucible for new ideas and ways of looking at the world.

Our universities, justifiably, have a long and golden reputation for protecting free speech.

But while reputations are hard won, they can be far more easily lost.

Imagine a world in which Darwin had been prevented for putting forward his transformational ideas on evolution, because they caused offence – for they were considered deeply offensive by many at the time. Imagine a world in which Gladstone, Newton and Hume are "cancelled", such that students can no longer learn of their great achievements and inspirational ideas.

When students from all over the world flock to our universities, they do so on the expectation that they will be immersed in a broad range of views and opinions.

They do not expect to be prevented from hearing those views or even silenced before making them heard.

Staff and students should be free to discuss, debate and debunk the views of others without fear of censure, and I am deeply saddened that this is increasingly not the case.

Time and time again we hear of instances where policies and practices have been adopted which have a chilling effect on free speech and academic freedom, such as systems that allow lecturers or students to be anonymously reported for unwittingly causing offence, or charging student societies security costs to invite mainstream speakers; where students or staff have been silenced or threatened with a loss of privileges or even dismissal for airing views or opinions that others find distasteful or provocative.

Last year I warned  vice-chancellors that this situation could not be allowed to continue and we would act if we needed to. Which is why we are taking forward our landmark Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which will have its second reading in Parliament on Monday.

Strengthening the legal duties on universities, and ensuring robust action will be taken if these are breached, this Bill is making good on our election manifesto.

It places an obligation on higher education providers in England to take steps to ensure freedom of speech for their students, staff and visiting speakers, and makes this an essential requirement for public funding and registration.

The Office for Students will be able to impose sanctions, including fines, on any university that fails in this duty. Though of course, as the law does now, we will continue to draw a distinction between lawful, if offensive, views on the one hand, and unacceptable acts of abuse, intimidation, and violence on the other.

I want to congratulate all those students, academics and leaders who have had the courage to stand up for lawful freedom of speech and who have not backed down, even when they ran the risk of others’ disapproval.

For while Government is providing the legal framework to protect it, ultimately, free speech can only be protected by cultural change.

I want all universities to be places where free speech is not just tolerated, but is celebrated and thrives.

And I welcome that so many in our universities have stood up to defy the intolerant minority, who wish to enforce a monoculture of ideas.

I would urge all vice-chancellors to take action to stamp out those chilling practices and policies which they, perhaps unwittingly, have allowed to grow up.

And I would urge them to do this now, not wait until this Bill comes into force. At the end of the day, this is about respect and tolerance.

We should not demonise those who disagree with us. We need to teach students how to disagree civilly, not to "cancel" or condemn.

We need academics to challenge each other’s ideas through reasoned argument and debate, not petitions for dismissal, and to respect each other’s academic freedom rather than seeking to enforce a single, narrow lens upon the curriculum.

That is why we have introduced this Bill. To safeguard and protect the great traditions of our universities, and ensure Britain remains a country where free speech can flourish.