Michelle Donelan is Minister of State for Higher and Further Education, and is MP for Chippenham.
One hundred years ago, I doubt I would have been able to write this article. I certainly would not be Minister of State for Further and Higher Education, and my ability to speak freely about the issues that matter to me would be severely limited regardless of my position.
Conservative values of freedom, open debate and representative democracy over the last century have led us away from that and toward our proud status as one of the freest, fairest nations on the planet.
And yet, today, we have a cluster of institutions that are in the grip of a close-minded, intolerant ideology – and at the centre of this cluster lie our universities. Once the guardians of free thought and expression, increasingly university is a place where you are told what to think rather than taught how to think.
We must face up to the fact that we are no longer in the golden years of progress toward a more free and tolerant society. Progress is no longer considered progress unless it conforms to an increasingly narrow ideology. And an intolerant minority is able to silence their oppenents too often because of their deplorable willingness to use violence, intimidation, threats and outright bully-boy tactics to get their way.
Just last year, balaclava-clad protestors forced a female academic, Kathleen Stock, to stay off campus under threats of physical violence. Just a few weeks later, the Israeli Ambassador was hounded by an intolerant mob outside an LSE event – facing threats and insults that no other foreign diplomat faces in the UK.
We’ve all seen it, many of us with our own eyes. And let’s be honest, successive governments have talked the talk but failed to walk the walk. I believe that free speech is no longer something that Conservatives can content themselves with merely defending. We need to stand up and promote it, just as those in centuries before us did.
It starts with being brave enough to say that diversity of opinion is just as important as diversity of background.
This is not just some ideological slogan that makes our society nicer, it is actually a basic necessity if we are going to continue to grow our economy and spread opportunity. Afterall, who would you rather employ? An i inquisitive, critical, open minded graduate, or a self-constrained cookie cutter graduate who is afraid to be challenged or confront new ideas? I have never met an employer who wants more of the latter.
For those not convinced of the importance of free speech to innovation, the international comparisons speak for themselves. 86 per cent of the world’s Nobel Prize winners came from countries with the highest rating for academic freedom. Countries with the lowest rating for academic freedom have produced just one per cent of Nobel Prize recipients.
Having a true marketplace of ideas in our universities brings innovation and ultimately economic success to our country. The success of our vaccine programme and ultimately our ability to unlock before any other country was a product of this. Two thirds of our British unicorn companies worth over $1billion were founded here at home by UK graduates – this is not some happy coincidence, it is the product of a system that has allowed students to explore ideas and thoughts without the state or any other group telling them to stop.
But we know this is under growing threat from what is frankly an increasingly deranged minority. We have been rewarding their tantrums with every reluctantly deleted tweet, every speaker we allowed to be de-platformed and every seminar room discussion we allowed to be shut down.
And like any tantrum, rewarding it has not led to calm, it has proliferated the behaviour so that we now see trigger warnings slapped on Harry Potter. We see George Orwell’s 1984 branded “offensive and upsetting” for students to read. National heroes like Isaac Newton, Francis Drake and William Gladstone are cancelled, erased from history as though their contributions to the world were merely byproducts of evil.
All of this comes at the expense of the important issues that are genuinely in need of attention. While I worked on a campaign to stop the use of NDAs to silence victims of sexual abuse, these unrepresentative activists were focussed on debating whether Churchill was a racist. While I tackled pockets of antisemitism in our system, they were busy having Jane Austen removed from reading lists. And while I’ve been driving reforms to improve the quality of education at universities by cracking down on low quality courses that failed disadvantaged people, they were banning beef burgers from canteens on campuses.
Unless we stop this intolerant, illiberal minority from ruling the agenda, we will end up incapable of tackling the big issues that matter to students and instead we will find ourselves in a never ending culture war.
We have tried warm words, we have tried appeasement, but none of it has worked. So under my plans, universities are once again going to become fortresses of ideas that are backed by law.
On Monday a motion was passed to enable our landmark Free Speech Bill to be carried over to the next session of this Parliament – a restatement of this government’s intention to legislate on this hugely important issue, fulfilling our manifesto promise to the British people.
It marked the moment at which this Government and the people it represents said: enough is enough. The intolerant woke mob have had their brief period in the sun, but it is now over.
Universities, including their student unions, will face fines for engaging with or supporting cancel culture. Students, staff and speakers who have been de-platformed will have both a civil route and a legal route to justice – with a legal tort as a backstop to ensure that this legislation has teeth.
I am also instructing the Office for Students to establish a champion for free speech so that we have a true marketplace of ideas in which opposing opinions are not merely tolerated, but actually promoted as part of a free and fair debate on a given issue.
Because the legislation is so comprehensive, I am confident that it will effect a culture change that will reverberate right through the system – from the Student Union bar to the Vice Chancellor’s Office. The stakes are too high for both the status of our universities system as being world-class, and for our wider country who rely so heavily on a steady stream of open-minded graduates to flow into our businesses and innovate.
Before the legislation takes effect, my message to Vice Chancellors is this: do not be on the wrong side of history. Do not allow the history books to record your name as part of the small cabal of the intolerant. Look ahead and be part of a freer, fairer and more tolerant future.