A FORMER child prodigy from Taunton has been appointed the Government's first 'free speech tsar' for higher education in England.

In his role, Arif Ahmed, who was born and educated in the county town, is cased with defending free speech.

He pledges to stand up for "all views" in his role of promoting free speech at universities, while warning "democracy is at stake".

His job title is director for freedom of speech and academic freedom at the Office for Students

Professor Ahmed, who had a reading age of 14 while aged six at Bishop's Hull Primary School and won a scholarship to Queen's College based on the 11-plus when he was nine, graduated in maths from Oxford before doing an MA in philosophy at Sussex and gaining his PhD at Cambridge.

Referring to his new role, Prof Ahmed, a senior lecturer and Fellow of Gonville and Caius since 2015, said: "Free speech and academic freedom are vital to the core purpose of universities and colleges.

"They are not partisan values.

"They are also fundamental to our civilisation.

"As director, I will defend them using all means available.”

His powers could see higher education providers and student unions fined for no-platforming speakers without good reason.

Writing in The Times, Prof Ahmed said: “We settle disputes by discussion, not censorship or violence.

"Today that idea is fading.

“Universities must defend it. Democracy is at stake.”

He added that universities must allow "freedom to explore", while free speech "matters beyond the campus".

“These freedoms are worth fighting for,” he wrote.

“There are urgent threats to free speech and academic freedom in our universities.

"We must use all means necessary to address them.

“New legislation means universities and colleges must promote, and take steps to secure, academic freedom and free speech within the law.

“Free speech for just one side is not free speech at all.

"Free speech for all sides benefits all sides.”

Prof Ahmed will sit on the board of the Office for Students and oversee investigations into breaches of the new Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act, including a complaints system for students, staff and visiting speakers.

Claire Coutinho, a Junior Education Minister, said the new act and Prof Ahmed’s role are about “ensuring that fear does not undermine the rights of students and academics to debate controversial ideas and securing the right to an open exchange of ideas in universities”.