Durham University's former top donor has said he won't provide anymore funding to universities over higher education's "hollow lip service" when it comes to protecting free speech. 

Mark Hillery, a hedge fund manager, has previously donated over £7 million in the last eight years to his former university, but has said he will "not give a penny more until they (universities) get their free speech house properly in order."

In early 2022, Mr Hillery withdrew his funding, citing the University's Covid-19 restrictions in his reasoning, saying that they were "ridiculous and ineffective". Last week, he revealed his intention to stop gifting funds to any university in the UK, as he believes higher education has drifted away from free speech principles. 

Instead, Mr Hillery will donate money to causes fighting for free speech rights and protecting scholars from being cancelled. In 2022, he donated £400,000 to the Free Speech Union, a group which works to protect cancelled academics. 

Read more: Fiona Hill, Durham University Chancellor, questions education fees

Amongst Durham students, Mr Hillery is well known for his eponymous Arts Centre at Collingwood College, which is one of the university's premier theatres. He is also notorious for placing his bar behind the college's bar, meaning students drink for free all night. 

Last week, whilst speaking to The Telegraph, Mr Hillery outlined that he feels "compelled to redirect financial efforts to protect free speech."

He went on to explain: "In the real world, such actions would surely send some alarm bells ringing and prompt some hard-headed, honest questions. But in higher academia, the message currently appears either lost or deemed irrelevant to the cause."

There have been a number of free speech controversies at Durham University in the last few years; most notoriously, a speech by Rod Liddle triggered weeks of student protest in 2021.

Read more: The 12 top Durham University stories from the past year

In response to Mr Hillery's comments, a Durham University spokesperson said it "upholds freedoms of speech within the law", welcoming "diversity of opinions from staff, students and visitors."

However, Mr Hillery has said that: "Many universities have profound and virtuous-sounding mission statements relating to the protection of free speech. But these are currently little more than hollow lip service and bear little resemblance to reality on the ground."

He has also expressed his fear that the Government is being "manipulated into removing genuine 'teeth'" of the Higher Education Freedom of Speech Bill, which currently ringfences the rights of academics and students, allowing them to sue universities for free speech breaches. 

This criticism comes as the Government has tabled amendments to the bill, which would see academics and students seek compensation from the courts only as a last resort. 

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However, the education minister Claire Coutinho responded by insisting that the government remained "resolute in our commitment that academics and speakers will have the right to go to the court where this fundamental right has been denied."

Toby Young, British columnist and founder of the Free Speech Union, said: "Durham is the front line in the battle to restore free speech at British universities.

"Scarcely a week goes by without a student or academic reaching out to the Free Speech Union for help. We're thinking of opening an office in the city."

A Durham University spokesman said: “Our policy statement and our Code of Practice on Freedom of Expression are robust, and set out clear expectations and processes for activities affiliated to, funded by, or branded as Durham University.

“To our knowledge, we are not aware of a single occasion where a speaker has not been invited to speak at the university due to controversial views.”

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