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Higher Education

Volume 173: debated on Wednesday 6 June 1990

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3.

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement on measures to protect freedom of speech in institutions of Scottish higher education.

Following our earlier undertaking to consider the position in Scotland, we have decided to consult interested parties on arrangements for safeguarding freedom of speech in universities and colleges in Scotland, in the light of which we shall consider whether any action is necessary.

Does my hon. Friend recall the promise that was made on 20 June 1989 at column 268 in answer to a debate that I initiated on freedom of speech in Scottish universities and polytechnics—that the review would take place in six to nine months? As a year has now gone by, when can we expect the results of that review?

I recall the debate and the undertaking that was given, which was to consider the position in Scotland in the light of the review of the legislation, in particular section 43 of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 as it affects England and Wales. That review is still under way. We shall obviously wish to take account of the outcome of that review when considering the position in Scotland. However, I hope that my hon. Friend welcomes the commitment that I have just given.

What advice does the Minister expect to give to regional councils that have been led to understand, although they have not yet been informed, that the technical and vocational education initiative is to be slashed by 50 per cent. in the coming year? What involvement did the Scottish Office have in the discussions and what advice does the Minister of State intend to give to regional councils whose preparations are well advanced for the training of young people in the coming academic year?

Some rephasing of the forward extension of TVEI is taking place. I welcome the £1·8 million that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Employment has announced for the extension of TVEI. However, that has nothing whatever to do with freedom of speech, which is the subject of this question. I wish that the Opposition would spend more time on upholding freedom of speech rather than abusing it.

Does the Minister accept that this is a serious matter and that I regret the fact that there appears to have been a shift in the Government's position? He will remember that the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth), made it clear on 7 June 1989 that

"there was little evidence in Scotland of the problems that prompted the legislation south of the border."—[Official Report, 7 June 1989; Vol. 154, c. 210.]
and led to the imposition of section 43 in England. I recognise that recently there was one deplorable incident at Glasgow university, but that was very much a case of rent-a-crowd. Does the Minister accept that if the law were to be changed on the basis of such a demonstration, it would delight those who are responsible for trouble, but it would be a sad day indeed for university freedoms in Scotland?

It is because the situation in Scotland was different that we did not follow our English colleagues down the road of section 43. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would wish us to fulfil our commitment to reconsider the matter and therefore to hold consultations. I hope that he will also support Conservative Members when we say that freedom of speech is vital. If, as Disraeli said, a university should be a place of light, liberty and learning, it can be none of those things unless freedom of speech is upheld.

Does my hon. Friend agree that those who seek to silence those with whom they disagree demonstrate their own unsuitability for higher education? Does he further agree that university authorities ought to adopt a more robust attitude toward those who behave in such a disruptive way?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I am glad that a number of universities are looking at their codes of practice and their codes of discipline to ensure that freedom of speech is upheld in our universities.