Under-fire Education Secretaryhas pleaded with university chiefs to help unite the country against ‘ ‘ and an end Zoom-led lectures.
The minister, 45, made the comments while speaking at the Universities UK annual conference in Newcastle via Zoom.
Addressing the delegates at Northumbria University, Mr Williamson claimed some universities seemed driven to follow a ‘divisive agenda’ and accused them of ‘cancelling national heroes, debating about statues, anonymous reporting schemes and so-called micro-aggressions.’
He called on university heads to instead work towards uniting the nation instead of working to divide it.
It comes as the beleaguered Education Secretary faced a furious backlash on Wednesday after he mistakenly declared in an interview he had spoken to England footballer Marcus Rashford when it was actually rugby star Maro Itoje.
He clarified that ‘genuine mistake’ in a statement yesterday afternoon and said he had ‘huge respect’ for both sports stars and their campaigns.
Addressing the delegates at Northumbria University, Mr Williamson claimed some universities seemed driven to follow a ‘divisive agenda’ and accused them of ‘cancelling national heroes, debating about statues, anonymous reporting schemes and so-called micro-aggressions’
The Cabinet member had been due to attend in person but his office said he had commitments in the House of Commons, amid speculation Mr Williamson was in line to lose his job in a reshuffle.
Speaking today, 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.’
England and Manchester United star Marcus Rashford (left) laughed off Gavin Williamson’s gaffe, tweeting: ‘Accent could have been a giveaway’. England rugby star Maro Itoje (right) also poked fun at the Education Secretary
Mr Williamson also 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 Chekhov for the stage or carrying out complex molecular biology techniques over Zoom.
Gavin Williamson has pleaded with university chiefs to help unite the country against ‘cancel culture’ and an end Zoom-led lectures. Above: The Education Secretary today in London
‘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.’
Yesterday, Mr Williamson faced a furious backlash online including from Labour MPs David Lammy and Angela Rayner who slammed the Education Secretary’s shocking gaffe.
Discussing some of his most ardent critics, Williamson claimed to have met ‘engaged, compassionate and charming’ England and Manchester United player Rashford via Zoom. The footballer has previously written to the Education Secretary as part of his campaign to tackle child food poverty.
However, after the interview, a spokesperson for Williamson explained that he had actually met 6ft 4in Saracens rugby star Maro Itoje, who is from north London rather than the 5ft 11in Rashford, who is from Manchester.
Labour MPs David Lammy and Angela Rayner, slammed the Education Secretary’s embarrassing gaffe
News of Williamson’s mix-up saw him ridiculed online, with users posting several hilarious memes joking about the minister meeting other famous figures.
One shows him meeting with Geronimo the Alpaca, which is actually a small dog, while another shows him meeting Paul Weller, who is actually Theresa May.
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.’
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