Over the last 8 years, higher education in the UK has been subject to some of the largest and most invasive reforms in its history, guided by a deliberate, neoliberal project with the aim of crafting a marketised sector. This has set a new bar for invasive reforms that is now extending into the murky realms of the ‘free speech’ debate, with recently departed universities minister Jo Johnson proposing the illogical and frankly dangerous step of imposing fines on universities whose students’ unions fail to support free speech on campus.
On one level this policy is simply nonsensical – unions are legally autonomous organisations independent from universities, and (in most cases) universities do not have direct control over their actions. Fining universities for things unions do therefore seems a little unfair. It ignores the reality of campus life, as does much of the ‘free speech on campus’ debate. A students’ union, or a grassroots student activist group, choosing to no-platform certain speakers doesn’t mean the speaker cannot still speak at the university. Students rarely have direct control over who can and can’t enter university premises – their power will in most cases be limited to not supporting them with their funds or resources, perhaps issuing a statement condemning them and maybe organising a protest outside the event (which, contrary to a lot of reporting, does not limit someone else’s free speech and is itself a valid part of political expression).
So this idea is stupid, but it’s also sinister. It could force universities to intervene even more in union business, nudged into action by the tripartite of bad press, government pressure and financial burdens. Whether the policy will last beyond Jo Johnson, now he’s been shuffled away from the universities brief, remains to be seen, but the proposal is merely the most obvious example of the problems with the current free speech debate.
Having proper, democratic procedures in place that allow for a wide variety of activism, not shutting avenues of action down, is the way to ensure students’ welfare
Yes, universities should host debate on the highs and lows of human thought and action. It’s absolutely vital they do so. But students’ unions have no such obligation. They are political, campaigning organisations with values, aims and responsibilities, centred around the welfare of their students. They are political vehicles with specific aims – they do not and should not have a duty to provide a platform and a space for all ideas. That’s not their job. They should be able to refuse to support or host or even to actively campaign against certain people, organisations and views if they deem it fit. Seeking to erode this ability robs unions of their power to take a stand against certain ideologies and policies they deem to be against student interests; in short, it stops them doing their job.
The concern that unions might be making these decisions in such a way that doesn’t reflect their students’ wishes is legitimate. Not every union will be perfectly or even adequately representative of its members’ views. But robbing unions of avenues of political expression and depoliticising them, as Johnson’s latest proposal would, just adds to that problem. In my experience, those unions which intentionally depoliticise themselves, shutting down radical activism, not allowing grassroots expression of opinion to shape policy, and generally tending towards centralisation and professionalism over democracy and action, are the ones that are least representative. Having proper, democratic procedures in place that allow for a wide variety of activism, not shutting avenues of action down, is the way to ensure students’ welfare in a representative way.
Someone being controversial or heterodox is no guarantee of their contribution to our collective knowledge
What if students also put pressure on their university to emulate the no platform policies supported by their union? Well, it wouldn’t cause the disaster that hysterical media commentators and self-righteous ministers warn us of. Ideally, universities themselves would be democratic communities and would withhold the right to ban certain speakers and organisations that conflict with their collectively established aims and values. In the ethos of academia and intellectual exploration, they should veer on the side of allowing speech, but this doesn’t mean no-platforming will never be appropriate. Students’ welfare must be considered. Feeling personally threatened and suffering mental health problems due to derogatory speech and ideologies is hardly conducive to fearless academic pursuit. In addition, universities have limited space and resources, and are expected to uphold a certain standard of debate. Someone being controversial or heterodox is no guarantee of their contribution to our collective knowledge – in a lot of cases, we should question whether listening to a racist or transphobic speaker offers any sort of enlightenment to the audience.
If a community of scholars decide that a certain organisation, individual or worldview has very little in the way of evidence or reason supporting it, and is adding very little to the debate, shouldn’t they be able to pass by them in favour of more interesting, well-supported or enlightening approaches? Sometimes, the costs of allowing uninformed, poorly thought out hate speech a space, supported by university resources, can outweigh the possible benefits of intellectual exploration. This does not mean simply banning anyone that reaches conclusions we don’t like, but it does mean holding a certain bar for intellectual rigour, and that universities should not ignore staff and student wellbeing when making these decisions either.
Ultimately, it is the job of a union to protect its students, not to allow a space for unsavoury speakers to air their views. The current free speech debate would do well to recognise that unions and activists are not the same thing as universities, to understand that the goals of academia are more complex than allowing simply anyone to use university resources to air their views, and to appreciate that the more dangerous threat to higher education, and indeed free speech itself, is the invasive neoliberal state.
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