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Barnabas welcomes UK Government plan to protect free speech in universities


23 November 2017

Universities minister Jo Johnson MP has said the government will protect free speech in universities. Announcing a consultation on how the new universities regulator, the Office for Students, will work, he made clear that he wishes it to champion protecting free speech on university campuses.

His move comes in the wake of the so called “safe spaces” movement which seeks to ban any non politically correct expression of opinions in universities, in case they cause offence. Barnabas Fund has written to Mr Johnson warmly congratulating him on the move and encouraging him to extend this to protect freedom of religion on campuses as well. We pointed out that in many universities and colleges freedom of religion is being increasingly eroded – often for ideological reasons. For example:

  • There have been numerous examples of Christian unions facing attempts by student unions to ban them, although similar actions are rarely taken in relation to other faiths. The recent case at Balliol College, Oxford (which incidentally was where Mr Johnson himself studied) is simply one of a great many such incidents going back many years.
  • The freedom of students to debate and respectfully try to convince others of the truth of their beliefs, whether Christian, Atheist or anything else should be central to the ethos of a university. Sadly, however this is actively opposed by some in the “safe spaces” movement.
  • Last year Sheffield University expelled a student from its MA course in Social Work because of a private Facebook post in which he had respectfully stated his support for a traditional Christian view of marriage. In effect, the university’s actions amounted to the reintroduction of a new University Test Act, nineteenth century laws which, required students to publicly assent to particular beliefs in order to be admitted to universities. We are also aware of a similar case at another university involving a student nurse who faced disciplinary action after expressing deeply held Christian views on the sanctity of life. In effect, these universities are turning the clock back on freedom of religion to the situation which existed in early Victorian times.

Barnabas Brief - Freedom of religion in universities: Until the mid nineteenth century English law required both students and lecturers at Cambridge and Oxford Universities to publicly affirm Anglican beliefs. Non conformists and Catholics were therefore excluded from getting a university education in England. As the culmination of the UK’s 400-year progress towards full freedom of religion, these laws were abolished for students in 1854 (Oxford) and 1856 (Cambridge), and then for lecturers at both universities in 1871. When Australia became independent from the UK a generation later, it specifically wrote into its constitution a clause (S.116) prohibiting any future government from introducing a new Test Act.