Universities in England have launched a fightback in opposition to govt attacks on their autonomy, telling ministers they “crossed a line” by pressurising them to abandon a scheme built to enhance equality on campus.

In what may possibly be a turning stage in the so-named “culture wars” above no cost speech, Universities Uk (UUK) took on the schooling minister Michelle Donelan soon after she warned them to reconsider membership of a race equality constitution, operate by the charity Advance HE.

The plan – which counts the the vast majority of Russell Team universities amid its users – aims to establish boundaries to results for black, Asian and minority ethnic students. But in a letter to vice-chancellors this 7 days, Donelan claimed that membership of the charter was “in tension” with universities’ duties to uphold free speech.

In its letter of response on Thursday, Universities Uk mentioned: “An essential line has been crossed with the letter showing up to immediate universities to take a precise approach” on equalities.

In a later on statement, UUK confirmed that it intended to dismiss Donelan’s request and remain affiliated with Advance HE.

A spokesperson for UUK claimed: “Universities take their tasks to market and safeguard totally free speech incredibly critically. We have but to see any proof of how this voluntary, non-prescriptive plan will work from this.

“The scheme is voluntary and gives a usually means as a result of which universities can handle racial inequality in just the sector and we will carry on our do the job with Advance HE to support this goal.”

The row arrives as the increased training liberty of speech bill is getting debated in the Lords, wherever it has occur beneath fireplace from Conservative, Labour and cross-bench peers. It has been criticised for imposing a new no cost speech regulator with new powers to wonderful universities for failing to comply with totally free speech provisions.

Vice-chancellors explained Donelan’s letter was a chilling forerunner of how a regulator could interfere with inner university affairs if the invoice is handed in its current type, with 1 describing it as “an unambiguous attack on college autonomy”.

David Willetts, the Conservative peer and previous universities minister, explained: “I do want to see protections for flexibility of speech, but it is very odd to safeguard freedom of speech at the very same time as further intervention.

“I consider a person of the motives why universities in Britain are so internationally revered is because of their autonomy. I really don’t think it is as much a line becoming crossed as a slippery slope that we are on, in which the autonomy of our universities is gradually eroded.”

The letter to Donelan, signed by Prof Steve West, vice-chancellor of the College of the West of England, reminded the minister that racism remained “a pervasive societal issue” that affected pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds.

But it extra: “Universities, as autonomous institutions, need to also continue being absolutely free to make your mind up how very best to foster inclusivity and deal with societal concerns these as racism which have a severe and detrimental affect on workers and students.”

The letter ongoing: “We do not feel that no cost speech and voluntary exterior assurance frameworks are at odds with every single other – alternatively they can assistance to handle electrical power imbalances and make certain a extra numerous variety of voices are empowered to communicate up.

“We recognize from our users in England that a range will probable respond to you immediately, both equally to restate their determination to guaranteeing totally free speech and to emphasize how external assurance schemes perform an critical function in tackling major difficulties this sort of as harassment and diploma awarding gaps.”

Whilst Donelan’s letter pointed out that universities had been autonomous and free to sign up for techniques these types of as the race equality constitution, she went on to say they need to “reflect carefully” on membership.

Although Progress HE’s race equality constitution was the only example outlined by name, Donelan went on to say that “there are of training course a selection of other, identical, strategies, and this letter invites watchful consideration in respect of all these”.

Advance HE also administers the Athena Swan constitution that seeks to increase gender equality inside increased schooling and exploration. Donelan has earlier described the plan as “at worst a dangerous initiative that undermines scholarship”.

“Bearing in brain the sizeable sums invested by the taxpayer into greater training, I would talk to you to take into account no matter if membership of these schemes the initiatives that flow from them and the generation of new, extremely compensated, management roles in these spots really depict excellent worth for income for taxpayers or learners,” Donelan explained.

Criticising the higher instruction independence bill when it was debated this 7 days, Shami Chakrabarti, a Labour peer and a previous director of Liberty, said: “How can it be a protection of tutorial freedom to give more and extra ability more than impartial establishments of scholarship to the government’s Business for Pupils and the new director for flexibility of speech?”

Willetts reported that the current bill was significant-handed and questioned how the bill’s independence of speech regulator could stability the government’s demands that some forms of legal speech, these as holocaust denial, would not be allowed on campus.

“They are anticipating the regulator to be much more restrictive than simple lawful, freedom of speech. We have to have to know just what items he or she is not going to protect inspite of them remaining lawful,” Willetts claimed.

Willetts claimed he hopes the federal government would make “significant” amendments to the monthly bill, pointing out that universities could discover themselves punished for suppressing some varieties of speech at the exact same time as tech platforms ended up punished underneath the government’s new on line safety monthly bill for transmitting the same thoughts.