The Government has appointed its first ever “free speech tsar” to protect free debate in British universities, following a string of high-profile “cancellations” among academics.

Arif Ahmed, a philosophy professor at the University of Cambridge, will be handed new powers to enshrine freedom of speech on campus.

As the UK’s inaugural director of freedom of speech and academic freedom, he will be responsible for investigating any breaches of new duties placed on universities to promote freedom of speech.

Professor Ahmed will also sit on the board of the Office for Students, the higher education regulator, and advise them on sanctions for universities and student unions that fail to comply with their duties, including potential fines.

His appointment comes after the High Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill passed into law last month. It will establish a new free speech complaints system and strengthen the legal responsibility of universities to protect the rights of students, staff and visiting speakers.

Professor Ahmed said freedom of speech and academic freedom were not just “vital to the core purpose of universities and colleges” but “fundamental to our civilisation”.

“As director, I will defend them using all means available. I feel tremendously honoured and fortunate to have been appointed,” he said.

The Cambridge academic added that potential breaches of new freedom of speech laws could include no-platforming external speakers, enforcing “ideological” bias training for staff and students, and disciplining lecturers for their social media activity.

The Department for Education (DfE) has also suggested that universities that use non-disclosure agreements against staff or students who report bullying or abuse could be affected by the new powers.

It comes after Rishi Sunak pledged to crack down on “woke nonsense” during last year’s leadership election, with the Prime Minister widely expected to ramp up the culture wars in the run-up to next year’s election.

However, the new duties are not expected to come into force until “before the 2024-25 academic year”, according to a blog post by the DfE – meaning they could have little tangible impact before the next general election.

Commenting on Professor Ahmed’s appointment on Thursday, Mr Sunak said that “nowhere” was more important to “understand those we disagree with… than within our great universities”.

“A free society requires free debate. We should all be encouraged to engage respectfully with the ideas of others,” he said. “University should be an environment where debate is supported, not stifled.”

It follows a rare intervention by the Prime Minister earlier this week to voice his support for Professor Kathleen Stock, a gender-critical feminist who has been accused of transphobic views.

Speaking out ahead of Professor Stock’s speech at the Oxford Union on Tuesday, where she was heckled by protesters, Mr Sunak said: “Agree or disagree with her, Professor Stock is an important figure in this argument. Students should be allowed to hear and debate her views.”

Professor Stock is among a growing number of academics who claim to have been “cancelled” or “no-platformed” by universities after stoking controversy.

The Government cited examples including a case from 2017 when more than 170 academics expressed public opposition to an Oxford theology professor’s research project, Ethics and Empire, because he had said the UK public should have “pride as well as shame” in the British Empire.

Universities UK (UUK), which represents 150 universities across the country, said the sector would welcome Professor Ahmed’s appointment.

A spokesperson for UUK said “Universities take their responsibility to protect and promote both free speech and academic freedom seriously.”

However, the sector body has previously described the assumption that cancel culture is rife across British universities as a “myth”.

It cited figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showing that just 0.9 per cent of speaking events at UK higher education providers did not go ahead in 2020-21.

Out of 19,407 total events during that period, only 193 speakers were rejected – the vast majority of whom had their events cancelled for “procedural” or “health and safety” grounds.

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