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Students should have the right to avoid controversial talks on campuses because they could lead to ‘painful or difficult experiences’, a leading university chief has said.

Baroness Amos, the director of SOAS, University of London, said universities should balance their commitment to free speech with their duty to ‘support students’.

She said that while it was right that difficult topics should be discussed, students must have the right ‘not to attend’ such events.

Her comments, made at a conference held by university funding body HEFCE, come as a debate rages over free speech on campuses. Many student unions have stopped guests from speaking because of their ‘offensive’ views. Critics say it is symptomatic of an over-sensitive ‘snowflake’ generation.

Lady Amos said: ‘As universities, we have a responsibility towards free speech but we also have a responsibility to make sure it is done in a way which is supportive of our students who have gone through experiences where that commitment to freedom of speech can lead to extremely painful and difficult experiences.’

SOAS said the comments applied only to extra-curricular guest talks – and not to classes or lecturers. The university was formerly the School of Oriental and African Studies and has a tradition of student activism and radical politics.