For those who choose to go to University, being exposed to new opinions and having your world view challenged is an important part of academic development. While this may have the potential to make some people feel uncomfortable, freedom of speech is vital to university. During the second reading of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, I was pleased to support this valuable piece of legislation. It will not only help tackle hate speech but will also continue to demonstrate that the UK is a place of free speech and the peaceful exchange of views.
You can read my full contribution to the debate below:
One characteristic of good education settings is that there are opportunities to be challenged. Education must be a place for open minds rather than narrow minds.
Speaking personally, I found that university was an opportunity to have my view of the world challenged. As a newly minted student, I joined the Durham Union Society, a venerable debating society that is known for bringing a very wide range of speakers in front of the student body. It gave me, and thousands of other students, a chance to hear from people on a range of issues, from nuclear power to environmentalism and various forms of human rights. It gave me a chance to hear from people whose views were simply beyond the range of anything I ever heard or learned about at my school in the south Wales valleys.
I heard from Dave Nellist, the inspiration for Private Eye’s Dave Spart of the loony left, who set out a very robust defence of his view of socialism, something I had never heard or learned about in my life. I heard Peter Tatchell set out a robust defence of direct action in pursuit of his campaign about gay rights. More importantly, I heard him articulate, in a way that many, like me, will have heard for the first time at university, the long history of injustice and prejudice that needed to be addressed. We then heard and saw his commitment to that action in opposition to the appointment of a Bishop of Durham whom he regarded as having been a hypocrite on that issue.
I had the opportunity to encounter speakers representing organisations as diverse as the Monday Club on the extreme right and the British Communist party on the extreme left, and every point in between. I strongly believe that I am in good company, in that that diverse range of challenges to what I had learned and what I perceived about the world helped me to become, as I believe I am, a more socially liberal and a more enlightened person. It certainly developed my interest in and my commitment to politics.
It is clear from the engagement that I have had with constituents who are students, who are part of the academic life of many of our university campuses across the country, that there is a serious, well-founded and genuine concern that the actions of some in our university system have had a chilling effect on their ability to speak freely, to ensure that future generations of students are able to enjoy the benefit of having their prejudices and views challenged, on whichever side of the spectrum.
While I strongly welcome the fact that we will continue to have, completely unaffected by this Bill, very robust laws that tackle hate speech in all its forms and that deal with the many prejudices that we have as a society decided are unacceptable, as well as enshrined protections for people in the Equality Act 2010, through the Bill we will also have measures in place to ensure that the freedom of speech of our academics and our students and the ability of future generations to be challenged and to develop their thinking—in a way that is fundamentally important and that we see going on every day in our House of Commons and our parliamentary democracy—are preserved for future generations.
Through the Bill, we will not see a narrowing of the thinking or a narrowing of the debate in our universities, but we will ensure that they remain what they have been for generations: a place where open minds can thrive and prejudices can be challenged and where we can develop our thinking as a society in a way that then contributes to our national life. For all those reasons, it seems to me that this proposal from the Government is a sensible step. We need to demonstrate to academics and students who have these concerns that we take them seriously. If we are to be the bastion of democracy that we wish to be, we have to ensure that free speech can happen in our universities and in every other part of our education system as well. That is why I strongly support this legislation from the Government.
I hope that the Bill will bring about the great benefit of demonstrating that the United Kingdom is not just genuinely committed to tackling those who would peddle hate and prejudice in our universities and other education settings, but determined to be a place where open minds, debate and free speech can thrive for the long-term benefit of our democracy.