Universities pursuing ‘divisive agenda’ by ‘cancelling national heroes’, Gavin Williamson says

Such iniatives ‘undermine public confidence’ and ‘widen divisions’, education secretary claims

Zoe Tidman
Thursday 09 September 2021 15:51
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<p>Gavin Williamson made the comments during a speech to a University UK conference</p>

Gavin Williamson made the comments during a speech to a University UK conference

Gavin Williamson has accused some UK universities of pursuing a “divisive agenda” through actions such as “cancelling national heroes” and “debating statues”.

The education secretary said such moves only “widen divisions” in a speech on Thursday.

“Although our universities are in the main fantastic communities, we would all admit, like anywhere in society, they are not perfect,” he said.

“Whether it is antisemitic incidents, the use of non-disclosure agreements to silence victims of sexual assault, or increasingly casualised workforce or inadequate teaching provision for disabled students, there are genuine injustices that we should strive to get right.”

But he added: “Too often, some universities seem more interested in pursuing a divisive agenda.”

Mr Williamson said this involved “cancelling national heroes, debating about statues, anonymous reporting schemes for so-called micoaggressions and politicising their curricula”.

“Vice-chancellors who allow these initiatives to take place in their name must understand they do nothing but undermine public confidence, widen divisions and damage the sector,” he said.

The education secretary has been a vocal supporter of free speech on campus, amid campaigns and conversations over decolonising curriculums, removing controverisal statues and de-platforming speakers over views.

Earlier this year, he backed a Oxford College’s decision not to remove a statue of white supremacist Cecil Rhodes, which students have been campaigning for years to have taken down.

Mr Williamson also condemned students in another Oxford college who had taken down a picture of the Queen, which they said was an emblem of “recent colonial history”.

The National Union for Students told The Independent the education secretary’s involvement in the matter “posed questions” over the government’s commitment to free speech.

The education secretary has previously said he was “deeply worried” about the “chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring”.

The government has put forward a bill that would create new requirements for universities and student unions over freedom of speech, with a regulator able to issue fines for any breaches.

But unions have accused the government of “exaggerating” the threat to push through these laws and said there was “no evidence” of a freedom of speech crisis at universities.

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