Labour has accused the government of “manufacturing” a culture war over free speech on university campuses to distract from its policy failures during the pandemic.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson on Tuesday unveiled proposals that would allow would-be speakers to sue universities for not giving them a platform.
He also said he would appoint a “free speech champion” and put new conditions on universities that want public funding.
The announcement appears timed to feed into concerns in the conservative press that right-wing speakers are getting an unfavourable reception on campuses.
Some conservatives believe they are being unfairly targeted for criticism or censure and say they have a right to be invited to speak.
But Mr Williamson’s announcement prompted accusations that he was “fighting phantom threats to free speech” to distract attention from his own policy failures on universities during the coronavirus pandemic.
Students and academics have complained of a chaotic approach to universities throughout the pandemic, with most still being charged full tuition fees despite the cancellation of in-person classes.
Kate Green, Labour’s shadow education secretary, accused the government of “manufacturing” a culture war controversy to take the focus off policy.
“Students are worrying about when they can return to campus, how to pay their rent and how they will get a job,” she said.
“The government has abandoned them throughout this crisis and is manufacturing this debate to distract from their own failures.”
Labour MP Nadia Whittome added: “This isn’t about free speech. It’s about manufacturing a culture war to suit their own interests.”
Jo Grady, the general secretary of the University and College Union, said it was “extraordinary” for the government to make such an announcement “in the midst of a global pandemic”.
“The government appears more interested in fighting phantom threats to free speech than taking action to contain the real and present danger which the virus poses to staff and students,” she said.
“In reality the biggest threats to academic freedom and free speech come not from staff and students, or from so-called ‘cancel culture’, but from ministers’ own attempts to police what can and cannot be said on campus, and a failure to get to grips with the endemic job insecurity and managerialist approaches which mean academics are less able to speak truth to power.”
Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, NUS vice-president for higher education, said: “There is no evidence of a freedom of expression crisis on campus, and students’ unions are constantly taking positive steps to help facilitate the thousands of events that take place each year.”
A statement from Universities UK added: “There are already significant legal duties placed on universities to uphold freedom of speech and universities are required to have a code of practice on free speech and to update this regularly.
“While it is important that universities continually reflect on ways they can further enhance and support free speech, we await further details on the proposals – including about the role of the free speech champion – before we can comment further about the implications for university and student union activities.”
Mr Williamson said he was “deeply worried about the chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring” on campuses.
He added: “Free speech underpins our democratic society and our universities have a long and proud history of being places where students and academics can express themselves freely, challenge views and cultivate an open mind.”