The under-fire Education Secretary has called on university bosses to help bring the country together rather than “cancelling national heroes” and “debating about statues”.
Gavin Williamson appeared remotely at the Universities UK (UUK) annual conference, in Newcastle, and made a wide-ranging speech, thanking the sector for its efforts to deal with the pandemic.
The Cabinet member had been due to attend in person but his office said he had commitments in the House of Commons.
There had been speculation Mr Williamson was in line to lose his job in a reshuffle, and he was criticised on Wednesday for mistakenly saying in an interview he had spoken to England footballer Marcus Rashford when it was actually the rugby star Maro Itoje.
Speaking to delegates at Northumbria University, Mr Williamson said: “Too often some universities seem more interested in pursuing more divisive agenda, involving cancelling national heroes, debating about statues, anonymous reporting schemes for so-called micro-aggressions and politicising their curricula.
“Vice-chancellors who allow these initiatives to take place in their name must understand that they do nothing but undermine public confidence, widen divisions and damage the sector.
“I call on you to help bring our nation together, instead of driving our nation apart.
“Rather than manufacturing offences from the past, let us instead come together to tackle injustice and promote equality for students and staff today.”
Mr Williamson praised universities for their response to the pandemic and urged bosses to make sure the student experience returned to as near to normal as possible.
He said: “While the switch to online teaching was a necessary and vital way of keeping young people learning in as safe a way as possible, we have now moved on and students quite rightly expect that they can study in person alongside other students.
“Imagine trying to make sense of the subtleties of interpreting Chekov for the stage or carrying out complex molecular biology techniques over Zoom.
“I for one would need the full benefit of that in-person, world-class teaching that you and your members can rightly be so proud of.
“Obviously, I am not saying that you relax all those health measures which are there to keep people as safe as possible and minimise the risk of Covid transmission.
“What I do want to make clear is that I do not expect to see online learning used as a cost-cutting measure.”
Earlier, Prof Steve West, UUK’s incoming president, stressed his commitment to free speech on campus.
He told delegates: “Universities are central places where debate and challenges occur.
“Students come to university to explore a subject they are passionate about, to learn new things, to expand their minds, to challenge themselves and their opinions, and to question the views of others within a safe environment.
“This freedom is something that I am personally determined to uphold.
“The free exchange of ideas drives innovation, discovery, and social progress, provides students with a critical mindset, and ensures that universities continue to play a central role in national debates and wider society – even when it is uncomfortable for some.”