Universities minister warns institutions should be places that 'open minds, not close them'

  • Video report by ITV News political correspondent Paul Brand

Universities must be places that "open minds, not close them", the universities minister has warned, amid ongoing debate about free speech at the institutions.

Jo Johnson said that free speech is a key part of university life and warned an an emerging trend of "no-platforming" is preventing students from challenging controversial opinions.

Mr Johnson's comments came in a speech at the Limmud Festival in Birmingham, which celebrates Jewish learning and culture.

"Universities should be places that open minds, not close them, where ideas can be freely challenged," Mr Johnson said.

His comments come ahead of the establishment of the new higher education watchdog, the Office for Students, which will begin operations at the beginning of the year.

Speaking to ITV News, Mr Johnson said there were a growing number of examples of "no-platforming" and using "safe spaces" to shield students from views that were controversial but not illegal.

"We're seeing more examples of speakers who are well within the bounds of legal free speech being harried, or even prevented form speaking at some universities.

"And it's important that they are accommodated and that uncomfortable views can be heard and can be aired in our universities."

Mr Johnson told delegates: "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 the new Office for Students, will ensure "promote freedom of speech within the law".

Mr Johnson insisted that while protecting free speech, institutions still needed to ensure there was 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 told the festival.

Universities could face action from the new higher education watchdog. Credit: PA

There are concerns that "no-platforming" and "safe place" policies are increasingly affecting free speech, and are being used to prevent speakers and discussions that some find uncomfortable or disagreeable.

"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.

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.

Under the government's plans, universities must ensure that students can take part in ''rigorous, open debate" or could face fines.

The proposals, which are open for consultation, could also see universities facing action including suspension and deregulation.

It has been argued that universities should not become 'discussion-free zones'. Credit: PA

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said: "Universities are absolutely committed to promoting and securing free speech and will not allow legitimate speech to be stifled.

There is already a legal duty on the higher education sector to secure free speech within the law and universities take these responsibilities very seriously.

He added: "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."