Gavin Williamson’s response to Oxford University students removing a painting of the Queen “poses questions” over the government’s commitment to free speech, according to the National University of Students (NUS).
Members of Magdalen College’s Middle Common Room voted to take down the portrait, saying the monarch “represented recent colonial history” and could make some feel unwelcome.
The move sparked backlash from the education secretary, who called it “simply absurd”.
Larissa Kennedy, president of the NUS, said it was “staggering” that Mr Williamson “has remained silent on the ever-growing mountain of challenges” affecting millions of students but “mustered the energy to intervene in an internal democratic decision at a single college within one university”.
“This poses further questions for the government’s commitment to so-called freedom of speech: indicating that, for the most part, this is only welcomed when that speech is agreeable to this government.”
Mr Williamson has been a vocal supporter of free speech on campus, saying he was “deeply worried” about the “chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring” as he unveiled proposals for greater safeguards earlier this year.
On Tuesday, he tweeted: “Oxford University students removing a picture of the Queen is simply absurd. She is the Head of State and a symbol of what is best about the UK.”
The education secretary added: “During her long reign she has worked tirelessly to promote British values of tolerance, inclusivity & respect around the world.”
But Jo Grady from the University and College Union claimed Mr Williamson’s “continuing interference in universities” was “not only absurd but dangerous”.
“Williamson styles himself as a champion of free speech and academic freedom, but never misses an opportunity to attack staff and students who are merely exercising these rights,” the union’s general secretary added.
“‘Denouncing students for taking down a portrait of the Queen in their common room is another distraction from the disastrous, systemic failings in higher education presided over by this government.”
When asked about the row over Magdalen students voting to remove the Queen’s portrait, a No 10 spokesperson said the prime minister “supports” the education secretary’s comments on the issue.
The president of Magdalen College defended the students amid backlash over the move, saying the college “strongly supports free speech and political debate”.
Dinah Rose said: “The Middle Common Room bought a print of the Queen in 2013 to decorate their own common room, and voted to take it down a few years later. Are we really so fragile now that we’re policing student votes about decor?”
She added: “Being a student is about more than studying. It’s about exploring and debating ideas. It’s sometimes about provoking the older generation. Looks like that isn’t so hard to do these days.”
New proposals aimed at strengthening protections for free speech on campus were put to parliament last month, which included the creation of a free speech champion role at the higher education regulator with the power to issue fines for breaches.
Mr Williamson said he hoped this Bill would tackle “the chilling effect of censorship on campus once and for all”.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The Education Secretary and this Department have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to ensure students are supported at this difficult time which includes distributing an additional £85m for those students most in need and allocating an additional £15bn towards student mental health.”
They added: “The education secretary was clear that removing a picture of the Queen from Oxford’s Magdalen College is simply absurd.”