Former Nationals leader Mark Vaile has been pushed out of the Univer­sity of Newcastle over his links to the coal sector.

Mr Vaile served as John Howard’s deputy prime minister from 2005 to 2007 and is currently the chairman of Whitehaven Coal.

He caused a serious stir when it was announced he was to become the University of Newcastle’s chancellor. 

Mr Vaile was selected as chancellor by a committee of four from the 16-member university council.

Reports say members of the group were given only Mr Vaile’s name for ­approval, not the names of any others under consideration.

The announcement was met with fierce opposition from academics, climate activists and philanthropists.

After weeks of protests, Mr Vaile has decided to step aside from his new role. Luckily for him, he fell from grace into the supportive arms of federal Education Minister Alan Tudge.

Mr Tudge sees it as an attack on free speech. 

“I respect Mark’s decision, but it’s very concerning that he has been forced to turn down this role because of ideological pressure,” Mr Tudge said this week. 

“At a time when we are trying to promote and enforce free speech and academic freedom on campus, we should not have a very competent person forced out of an important job because of this ­cancel culture.”

He did not appear to notice the expression of free speech by those who opposed the appointment.

Mr Vaile has also found support from the other side of the Canberra aisle, with MP Joel Fitzgibbon – a former ALP minister whose electorate of Hunter is a key part of the University of Newcastle’s reach – accusing activists of a “new McCarthyism”. 

“In Australia today, the blacklist is not so shadowy. Mark Vaile’s listing has been very public. The crime he has been publicly shamed for is his association with the coal industry. It’s a slippery slope,” Mr Fitzgibbon said on Tuesday.

“The bigger concern is the misplaced campaign against one of our region’s most important industries and the message the demonisation of Mark Vaile sends to the tens of thousands of local people who work in the coal industry and associated sectors.”