University censorship is fictionalising history, says Universities Minister

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Christopher Hope
·4 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Michelle Donelan, Universities Minister - Will Wintercross/Will Wintercross
Michelle Donelan, Universities Minister - Will Wintercross/Will Wintercross

Universities which allow books to be censored on reading lists are risking a fictionalisation of history reminiscent of the Soviet Union, the Government has warned in the latest front in the so-called culture wars.

Michelle Donelan, the Universities Minister, said that removing key texts from reading lists was "a very dangerous and odd road to go down, and certainly it has no place in our universities".

Last year Oxford University students warned that reading lists should come with 'trigger warnings' and called on the university to publish guidance for faculties to consider whether articles on reading lists amount to 'hate speech'.

The students have voted against “ableist, classist and misogynistic” reading lists, claiming that they should not be forced to engage with any “hateful material”.

However Ms Donelan told today's Chopper's Politics podcast, which you can listen to on the audio player above: "The so-called decolonisation of the curriculum is, in effect, censoring history.

"And, as a history student myself, I'm a vehement protector and champion of safeguarding our history. It otherwise becomes fiction, if you start editing it, taking bits out that we view as stains.

"A fundamental part of our history is about learning from it, not repeating the mistakes, being able to analyse and challenge why those events happened, how those decisions were made so that we don't repeat those actions in the future."

She added: "If we're going down this road of taking bits out, are we then going to end up putting bits in that we wish had happened?

"It's a very dangerous and odd road to go down, and certainly it has no place in our universities, I would argue, and it has no place in academic study.

"And it just doesn't work when governments try to remove elements of history. Look at the Soviet Union, look at China. There are multiple examples where it's been tried. It doesn't work.

"I'm all in favour of adding stuff in to enriching our understanding of history, to adding in sources from less well known and often overlooked individuals in history.

"Let's enrich our understanding and give our young people a fuller picture and a fuller and deeper understanding of our history.

"But most of the narrative that is coming out ... is about removing elements of history, about whitewashing it and pretending that it never happened, which I just think is naive and almost irresponsible."

She added: "A lot of the talk of the decolonisation is actually removing those elements, it's not about packing in extra into history.

"And when you look at people that are saying that our study is wrong in the UK, you don't often hear them talking about just enriching the sources that are used for students to study from it, it's about removing certain texts and books and replacing them with alternatives.

"And I also feel sorry for the students here, I mean, students want to actually properly learn and if we're adding stuff in, brilliant, but taking it out is not going to achieve them learning."

A report by the right of centre Policy Exchange think tank last August found that pro-Brexit and right-wing academics feel forced to censor their political views, putting free speech at universities under threat.

Campuses were found to be increasingly governed by unwritten rules that mean lecturers are under pressure to muzzle unfashionable opinions for fear of being ostracised or passed over for promotion.

A YouGov poll of 820 academics found that nearly a third — 32 per cent — of those who say their political views are “right” or “fairly right” have stopped openly airing opinions in teaching and research, compared with 13 per cent of those in the centre and on the left.

Among Brexit supporters, 27 per cent said they had refrained from publishing or airing views for “fear of consequences”.

Listen to the full interview with Michelle Donelan, plus conversations with Sir Stephen Bubb and Patrick O'Flynn on Chopper's Politics Podcast, using the audio player at the top of this article or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast app.