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Debate on campus must mean more than Punch and Judy

Jim Dickinson reviews a new report on "debate" on campus, and finds its assumptions about what "debate" is and where it happens troubling
This article is more than 1 year old

You sort of expect it from the Mail, and definitely from Tufton St.

Apparently, debating societies are meant to be the “very essence” of our universities.

In its leader comment accompanying coverage of Civitas’ latest salvo in the culture wars, it argues that debsocs are the “crucibles” in which “freedom of thought can flourish”, where “students learn to challenge prejudice via their own critical faculties” and can “test ideas in the pursuit of knowledge”.

It continues:

How troubling, then, that today almost half of universities no longer actively host these forums. Rather than encouraging robust exchanges of views, self-appointed gatekeepers – often students themselves – increasingly try to silence speakers whose opinions violate the woke groupthink.”

The problem is that also on my desk is a new report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), and we’re in similar territory. This one is headlined:

New study finds ‘quiet’ no-platforming to be a bigger problem than actual no-platforming.”

The press release, which defines “quiet” no-platforming as the “pre-emptive cancelling of events for fear of attracting controversy”, goes on to say that this new research is based on a “statistical analysis” of student events and “interviews with student organisers” to examine concerns about bias and no-platforming.

We’re told that speakers invited “had a left-wing bias overall”, and that eye-catchingly, and great for picture editors, speakers “quietly” no-platformed have included Alex Salmond, Liam Neeson, Harry Enfield and Peter Hitchens.

You’d assume from all this that there is a robust evidence base for the “quiet” claim – underpinned by a decent set of stats and some qual that sheds light on the issue for policymaking – given that it’s likely to end up all over the media, and will be grist to the mill for ministers promoting their Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill.

But you’d be wrong.

Base? How low can you go

There are problems with the research. First, it focuses (again) on the debating societies that the author could find – and so draws conclusions which suggest something sinister about the whole sector from just 19 higher education providers, and only their debating societies at that. It’s petri-dishing, in other words, about 0.001% of the UK’s student-run societies.

On that “bias” claim, dig a bit deeper and you find that of the 502 speakers analysed, 378 were at the independent Oxford and Cambridge debating unions – so given the report also draws in activity in the devolved nations, it’s analysing at most 0.002% of the circa 60k speakers that appear on campuses every year in England that will end up covered by the legislation. A 25% left wing, 19% right wing split (with the rest neutral) if anything over represents the right when comparing to student opinion.

And on that “quiet” claim, the evidence base is a set of interviews with students involved in 15 of the debating societies – which other than insinuations, catalogue in total a cancelled debate on the participation of transgender people in sports at UCL, a bunch of stuff about those Oxbridge debating clubs that won’t be covered by the legislation, three examples from Scotland and Wales, and a suggestion that Manchester’s debsoc pulled debates on the VC, the former Australian Prime Minister and OnlyFans – without ever making clear whether Nancy, Tony, or an OnlyFans creator were ever lined up in the first place.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I just have this funny feeling that Nancy Rothwell was never a “nailed on” for pitching up to a debate about her own performance. And Salmond, Neeson, Enfield, and Hitchens? All Oxford.

There’s a weird section on students’ unions that asserts that students’ unions “often present a barrier” to effective organising and can sometimes “put students off holding events entirely”. To substantiate that claim, there’s an anonymous account of a chat with a staff member at an SU, and three others that describe their SU as “bureaucratic” – without ever referencing the complex and conflicting legal duties that SUs have to navigate when helping students to stage events.

Overall, depending on your definition of “no-platforming”, I actually therefore think we’re therefore actually closer to the actual evidence showing “actual” no-platforming being more widespread than this poke-around-the-iceberg, chilling effect “quiet” thing. But that’s not really the point.

Avoiding politics

Elsewhere in the report, what does become clear is that students seeking to organise events for each other sometimes find doing so to be quite challenging. There’s the backlash, for example, from peers:

Many student organisers received vocal opposition to the speakers they invited. Much of the backlash was unpleasant but reasonable, such as comments on social media, personal messages and articles in the student press. Some criticism was internal: society committees were often divided over speakers. There was sometimes a stronger response, such as protests and walk-outs and – in the most severe cases – students were targeted for harassment and abuse.

Of course, anyone into their free speech would surely only seek to regulate out the “severe” targeting for harassment. Then ironically, if they chose to do so, they’d also have to consider another aspect of the report – that the supposed “quiet” no platforming is often about avoiding harassment:

Many were keen to stress the importance of safeguarding their members against discrimination and bigotry. This vetting process, though well meaning, meant many speakers were not given a platform.

And media coverage – which seems to obsess over our petri dish of the antics of debating societies at Russell Group universities – can be a problem too:

Media reporting can work in both directions. The threat of negative reports gives students a compelling reason not to cancel speakers. However, inaccurate reporting, especially that which creates controversy, can nudge cautious students towards ‘safer’ options if they are concerned they might be reported.

They’re human, after all, doing things in their own time:

…many cited their own inexperience as students new to politics and usually without considerable experience as organisers, chairs or interviewers. Many were not confident they could handle fallout or effectively challenge “problematic” comments made by speakers. Almost all said unprompted that they had no interest in creating controversy for its own sake, and wanted to create an engaging political debate to help other students access a topic, but they were anxious not to draw criticism from other students.”

When you take a step back, the picture that the report paints is one of students themselves considering the impact of their activities on others, particularly marginalised groups; coping with the sort of rapid, decentralised and often chaotic mass accountability for their actions that social media provides; sometimes realising that events organisation is complicated and costly; and wanting to avoid being publicly (and permanently) associated with controversy in the media.

Not all of the above is even undesirable. But in the round, even that that is is not going to get better as a result of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill. And much of it could well get much much worse.

Punch and Judy political education

As these student leaders tried to explain when we launched our work on free speech back in 2021, there is a debate about free speech on campus – just not the one we think:

Just ask any woman that’s a student leader on the internet, and tell us that simplistic, unfettered “free speech” is an unalloyed good thing. Has social media opened up unprecedented access to debate and ideas? Yes it has. Does it bring with it misogyny, bullying and trolling that drives women out of online spaces altogether? Yes it does.

For every policy maker that intends to secure free speech through the removal of restrictions, there are others that passionately believe we secure it by sensibly regulating each other’s behaviour, precisely so that controversial ideas and speakers can be aired.

When we charge students with balancing those kinds of duties – as we will do to create the “wider student experience” that OfS is usually desperate to argue isn’t part of the education experience – they’re always going to have people around them arguing their final decisions weren’t quite right. We should nevertheless support them in doing that – not condemn them for some kind of sinister “secret” no platforming when they make a nuanced decision.

And when it comes to regulating or encouraging debate on campus, do we really think that the majority of the sector’s underfunded SUs without a debating society are likely to encourage one into existence on the threat of a fine from OfS if they get it wrong, or fail to overrule a society committee when it changes its mind over inviting Amber Rudd to campus? That isn’t, I’m afraid, how student-led activity works.

To be fair, the report does argue for a more sensible regulatory package surrounding this kind of activity – but that headline means that message is likely to be lost. That’s a shame, because we do need to think about the culture of debate of campus – just not with “motions”, thrones and outrage about the youth of today.

Until recently what Russell Group debating societies had arguably come to represent for many is a kind of rarified carelessness – they dressed up and exchanged views with wine and canapes with the world’s most controversial people, signalling that their words won’t hurt them, because they’re above wider society – not of it. And they certainly weren’t disadvantaged.

But what is most striking about the report and the Civitas one before it is the way in which they frame the idea of “debate”. Remember what they are doing – framing deep dives into ancient student debating societies as symbolic interrogation into the culture of debate on campus, like assessing the public’s appetite for sophisticated political discussion by bemoaning how hard the producer’s job on Question Time is these days.

The idea that the best – or even a good – way to learn about and explore the nuances of a controversial topic is through a “this house believes” show of Punch ‘n Judy grift and absolutism from those whose careers are built on outraged clicks, is not only painfully dated, but ignores the myriad ways in which I observe thousands of student societies and their speakers (both inside and outside of the RG) explore complex issues with students. They deserve better than this.

One response to “Debate on campus must mean more than Punch and Judy

  1. Even this framing of the issue is too narrow though – most students don’t participate in any kind of extra-curricular societies, debating or otherwise. For most students (certainly in the social sciences and humanities) the vast majority of their opportunity to debate, and their exposure to potentially controversial ideas, comes in the classroom. This is also where they (should) learn – and indeed debate – the boundaries and conventions that make the free exchange of ideas possible and fruitful. It is also where both staff and students may, for a range of more or less good reasons, feel constrained. To focus any argument or claim about free speech at university entirely on extra-curricular debates is to miss where most of the action is taking place.

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