Universities Minister Sam Gyimah told a closed-door summit in Westminster on Thursday that university campuses must not display “institutional hostility” towards “unfashionable or unpopular opinions”.
His comments follow a parliamentary report which concluded complex rules governing events at universities were a barrier to freedom of speech.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights found that some speakers on campuses were being excluded due to no-platforming policies and safe space rules.
“Minority groups or individuals holding unpopular opinions which are within the law should not be shut down nor be subject to undue additional scrutiny by student unions or universities,” the report said.
Speakers such as the feminist author Germaine Greer, LGBT+ activist Peter Tatchell and the Ukip MEP Bill Etheridge have all faced being “no-platformed” on campuses.
Others, including former British National Party (BNP) leader Nick Griffin, and David Irving, a historian who has denied the holocaust happened, have faced protests during events.
Among the invitees to Gyimah’s summit was the National Union of Students, which has adopted a list of six organisations that affiliated campuses must not allow to speak, including the far-right English Defence League, the BNP, and jihadist organisation Al-Muhajiroun.
Discussions are set to take place over the coming weeks between Gyimah, the NUS, Universities UK, which represents many of the institutions, the Home Office, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Amatey Doku, Vice President (Higher Education) at NUS, said the union would fight to ensure any new rules would ensure student safety. He said there was “a great deal of confusion that can often risk skewing this debate.”
“That institutions and students’ unions are required to juggle multiple, often conflicting, regulatory responsibilities can only further add to this confusion,” he added in a statement.
“We will therefore look forward to contributing to the creation of new guidance – firstly to provide much needed clarity for the sector, but also to ensure that any obligations to free speech are balanced with an institution’s responsibility to keep their students’ safe from harm.”
But the introduction of new rules governing external speakers has been welcomed by the Sussex University’s free speech society.
Peter Anson, president of the Liberate the Debate group, said that just hours before an event last month student union officials cancelled the planned appearance of speaker Carl Benjamin.
Benjamin is a YouTube presenter known for videos promoting controversial views. One recent video asks: “Was Enoch Powell right?” He faced protests and threats of violence when he appeared at an event at King’s College London earlier this year.
“The union said they had received complaints about [Benjamin] appearing from students and so wanted us to cancel the event voluntarily, before doing so themselves,” Anson said. “Yet what is clear from the joint committee’s report is that you cannot simply stop a speaker from attending an event just because someone else objects.”
Anson said clearer guidance from the government could prevent such dilemmas occurring in future, adding: “Student unions are in a bit of a crisis over all this.”
Sussex University Student Union said that, while its president did withdraw from chairing the event after students raised concerns, the event was cancelled only when “new information came to light” about Benjamin and when the society rejected the offer of a new chair.