Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has suggested universities and students unions must “balance their duties” when tackling antisemitism and considering the right to free speech.
Speaking in the Commons, Zahawi told MPs:”The Government and I are clear that issues such as antisemitism are abhorrent, but universities and students’ unions must balance their legal duties, including freedom of speech and tackling harassment. ”
Referencing the government’s Higher Education Bill, the minister added:”The Bill will place duties directly on students’ unions to secure freedom of speech for staff, students and visiting speakers. No one should fear expressing lawful views.”
Conservative MP Sir John Hayes had asked Zahawi on Monday what “progress he has made on helping to protect freedom of speech in education?”
Hayes referred to what he said was the “recent sad example” of “Dr Sarkar at the University of Oxford.”
Hindu students in the UK had accused Dr Abhijit Sarkar, a British Academy Postdoctoral Researcher at New College Oxford, of leading a “Hinduphobic” campaign against Rashmi Sawant, the first female Indian student to be elected as President of the Oxford University Student’s Union.
MP Hayes told MPs:”As the Bill that will ensure that progresses through the House, the backdrop against which we debate it is disturbing, with universities continuing to use the Equality Act 2010 to elevate the fear of disturbance or distress above the ability of free speech to inspire, enthral and move the academic agenda forward.
“The case of Dr Sarkar at the University of Oxford is a recent sad example, but it is by no means exceptional.
“Will the Secretary of State, before the Bill reaches the statute book, conduct a review of free speech policies at universities, and, if necessary, issue fresh guidance to ensure that academics and students in those universities can speak freely? ”
Zahawi had earlier stated:”The Government maintain our commitment to the protection of free speech and academic freedom in universities with the reintroduction of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill following the Queen’s Speech on 10 May.”
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