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Academic Freedom

Volume 470: debated on Thursday 10 January 2008

Academic freedom is a fundamental principle of our higher education system. It is vital that academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and voice controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy. A definition of academic freedom setting out this principle is included in the model articles of government for higher education institutions. We expect all institutions to include such a provision, protecting academic freedom, in their governing documents.

How could such a definition be used to help combat the growth, such as it is, of extremism on university campuses, where surely, of all places, intolerance of any kind, particularly intellectual intolerance, should not be allowed to flourish?

I very much agree with the thrust of my hon. Friend’s question. I recently gave a major lecture on the importance of academic freedom; I argued that within such freedom lies one of the most powerful means at our disposal to refute violent extremist views on campus and promote a cohesive community. I strongly believe that academics must use the tools of their trade to expose the faulty logic and flawed arguments of those in favour of violent, extremist solutions.

The Minister will be aware from Adjournment debates of my interest in this subject, and he will know that there is statutory protection for freedom of speech on university campuses. If a lawful meeting, approved by university authorities and the police, takes place and there is a demonstration against it, does he agree that the police have a duty to ensure that the lawful meeting can go ahead, rather than be disrupted by demonstrators? Demonstrators would have the right to demonstrate, but not to prevent a meeting’s right to freedom of speech.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman; he and I have discussed such issues in the House before. He, I or other people might find a whole range of views objectionable and disagree fundamentally with them, but individuals have the right to express such views at a higher education institution as long as they are within the law. That is why the Government do not support a blanket no-platform policy. The most effective way to counter and challenge views with which we fundamentally disagree is by open, rational argument.

The House is well aware of the danger of extremism on university campuses, and we understand that the Government are shortly to publish guidelines on the monitoring of extremist activity at our universities. What obligations and duties over and above those required of an ordinary UK citizen will be imposed on academics to report the activities of students?

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not pre-empt guidance that we will shortly publish. Nevertheless, we published guidance last year on helping institutions to secure the safety of their students. Clearly, if illegal activities are taking place, it is incumbent on any responsible citizen to deal with them and report them.