A Cambridge professor who has criticised cancel culture on campuses is the frontrunner to become the Government’s new Free Speech Champion, The Telegraph understands.
Prof Arif Ahmed, a philosophy lecturer at Gonville and Caius College, is on the shortlist for the powerful new role, which would give him the authority to investigate free speech breaches at universities and advise the sector regulator on imposing fines.
The Government announced plans to appoint a Free Speech Champion last year, following a string of rows over the so-called “cancellation” of academics and students over their views.
The chosen candidate will be appointed to the board of the Office for Students and will investigate possible breaches of free speech legal duties, such as universities no-platforming speakers or dismissing academics because of their views.
The position is being created via the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which is currently passing through Parliament and which ministers hope will receive Royal Assent early this year.
Prof Ahmed, who has become a prominent figure in rows over university free speech, is the leading candidate for the role, according to Whitehall sources.
Concerns about freedom of speech
He recently sparked a backlash from students and academics including his college’s master, Prof Pippa Rogerson, for inviting Helen Joyce, the gender-critical feminist, to speak about her book, Trans, which criticises aspects of trans activism.
Following the incident in October, he wrote that the effect of the intervention from university leaders was “predictably chilling”.
He said: “Even before these letters came out, I was having to smuggle students into the event because they were afraid to be seen there.”
He has said that his biggest concerns about freedom of speech on campuses include the “direct intimidation and cancellation of speakers and academics”.
He has also criticised universities “race awareness” training asking academics to “assume racism is everywhere”. He said some universities are taking “a corporate position on contentious issues” and are demonstrating a “micro-management of speech, typically via harassment and discrimination policies”.
In December, the professor was appointed to the board of the Government’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, a group of experts charged with enforcing equalities legislation.
It is understood that interviews for the role have been held but a final decision has not been made.
‘A demanding role’
Prof Ahmed faces competition from other shortlisted candidates, including Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute think tank and a former Government special adviser to Lord Willetts, the Conservative peer, when he was universities minister. It is understood that Lord Willetts is among those pushing for Mr Hillman to be appointed to the role.
Mr Hillman, a former teacher, has emphasised the importance of free speech on campuses while also defending students who he has said “are regularly caricatured as woke snowflakes unwilling to have their opinions tested”.
Responding to a survey commissioned by his think tank showing a significant decline in student support for freedom of expression, he said: “We strongly caution against reading these polling results as providing straightforward support for the critics of students and the higher education sector. The culture wars that influential policymakers and some commentators have helped to stoke up may just as likely be the cause of the pushback from students as a symptom of it.”
The position, which will formally be known as the Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom, is a full-time role with an annual salary of £99,164. The director will be appointed for a four-year term, which could be extended.
In the job advert for the role, Nadhim Zahawi, the then education secretary, said: “This will be a demanding role which will require involvement with highly controversial issues and a considered understanding of the various legal duties and rights in play.”
He said that the chosen director will provide “visible leadership to the Office for Student’s approach to freedom of speech and academic freedom” and will oversee the performance of the regulator’s freedom of speech functions, including a new complaints scheme for academics and students.
The Department for Education, Prof Ahmed and Mr Hillman declined to comment.
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