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18 March 2015

Protecting free speech in education

Protecting free speech in education

Last month we examined in detail the arguments within parliament, during the processing of the Counter-terrorism and Security Bill, for and against the introduction of a statutory duty for universities and higher colleges of education to help prevent terrorism and extremism.

Although Home Secretary Theresa May succeeded in getting the measures through, there still remained the need for parliament to formally approve safeguarding details to be set out in revised draft guidance.

Now however, The Sunday Telegraph has reported a major cabinet split in which deputy prime minister Nick Clegg insisted on a personal veto of the proposals following a reputedly stormy meeting with the prime minister.

The original government plans are understood to have been blocked by Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat business secretary who is also responsible for universities policy, after university vice chancellors and academics complained that the proposals would negatively impact on their duty to promote free speech and debate – a key Liberal Democrat policy commitment.

Negotiations between Mr Cable and Mrs May apparently broke down, following which the row had to be escalated for David Cameron and Nick Clegg to resolve. Mr Clegg is understood to have made it clear that he could not support university vice chancellors being required by law to vet visiting speakers and their speeches consequent to the aim of safeguarding students from the influence of extremists. The deputy prime minister bluntly advised Mr Cameron that the Liberal Democrats would not support the new rules. As a result, a complete section of the draft Home Office guidance on how universities should handle visiting speakers has apparently been cut.

The proposed legal guidelines detailing how the ban would work, which were published by the Home Office in December, and which were being revised following the parliamentary debates, have also been cut.

The impact of these developments has been to cause further confusion. The government is now warning that students remain at risk of radicalisation particularly by preachers visiting campus Islamic societies. Home Secretary Theresa May is insisting that universities must now "play their part" in preventing radicalisation, even though there will no longer be any government guidance on how they should go about dealing with extremist speakers.

Urging universities to root out extremism, Mrs May advised The Sunday Telegraph: "Tackling the radicalisation of young people is not and cannot ever be the sole responsibility of the government and law enforcement agencies. The new Prevent Duty means universities will have a legal obligation to play their part, and I hope they do as fully as possible."

The new statutory legal duty – which still needs to be formally ratified by parliament later this month – requires publicly-funded organisations including schools, NHS trusts, nurseries and universities to actively work to prevent vulnerable people from becoming radicalised or converted to terrorist causes. There are concurrent reports that university and other public sector staff may need to be sent on terrorism prevention training courses.

This stalemate seems likely to offer a recipe for confusion, a picture matched to some extent by parallel controversial requirements of the secretary of state for education for schools to promote so-called 'British values'. The report published this week by the House of Commons Education Committee reflected the widespread disquiet these proposals are causing, especially since Ofsted has been required formally to inspect and report on "the active promotion of British values as part of its judgement on leadership". Although the Education Committee supported the promotion of 'British values' which they considered to be "universal", tellingly, the secretary of state "was unwilling to 'lay down rules' about how the requirement was to be interpreted".