On lots of university and students’ union managers’ desks right now are thorny problems relating to conflict between groups of students – many of which concern artefacts of activism emerging from the Middle East conflict.

The manifestations can be about protests, posters, social media graphics or speaker events, and are complex to resolve.

So the news that an employment tribunal has formally recognised anti-Zionist beliefs as protected under the Equality Act has the potential to raise the stakes even higher.

The judgement arguably offers some clarity about what goes on in the context of teaching and research – but once we’re out into wider student (and academic) activities and the way that people conduct themselves, things remain very difficult to judge.

I wrote for SUs recently about the way in which a complaint about the wording on a poster might manifest as a harassment issue. And I fear that the idea that both “sides” in a conflict may now feel enabled to launch complaints at each other on the basis of formally legally protected beliefs and a perception of an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment will almost certainly generate more casework.

Ironically, on the day that the David Miller employment tribunal judgement emerged, I was taking part in a fantastic consultation on democracy and free speech on campus run out of St George’s House.

Academics, experts, parliamentarians, practitioners, students (and even people like me) were exploring the nature of the problem, the emerging agenda, the politics and what might be practically done as (at least for providers in England) as tougher regulatory regime takes hold.

It was Chatham House rules, and a formal note will emerge on proceedings soon – but the event was very helpful in crystallising where some of all of this has got to, and what might be done next.

Complaints culture

Sometimes people say to me “where has all the protest gone”? I often say – it’s still there, it’s just that instead of it existing on the streets, it’s in the report and support inboxes and the caseload of student societies coordinators.

A phenomenon that predates the flare up of the conflict in Gaza that I’ve been watching happen in real time over the past fifteen years or so has been what feels like an increasing tendency for students to complain about each other – either informally or formally – arguing that someone’s else’s behaviour represents harassment.

I have tended to be in two minds over it. On the one hand, the idea that students with all sorts of protected characteristics were previously being abused or harassed but were both unable to voice it and expected to sort it out amongst themselves – with all of the problematic power dynamics that suggests – feels like something we should seek to confine to the past.

As I’ve noted here before, that can feel odd for a baby boomer generation that sought to reduce authoritarianism. Students’ contemporary organised call for “protection” or “safety” from others – asking authority not to get out of the way but to act for me – jars both generationally, and jars politically particularly for a thread of conservatism influenced heavily by libertarianism.

What has been fascinating to watch is the way in which the various actors keen to see something done in universities have come around to the idea of using rules, conduct and discipline in order (conceptually at least) to secure their own freedom.

It’s not so long ago, for example, that people like Policy Exchange were advocating changes to the Equality Act to prevent what they saw as egregious weaponisation of equality legislation to silence others. And libertarian group Spiked! went from endless blogs condemning rules to pretty much cheerleading a new set of them in the form of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill.

But either way, a phenomenon it is – barely a day goes by without an SU talking to me about a rise in student on student complaints – and the finely balanced judgements over whether something is free speech and to be protected, or harassment and therefore to be banned, get harder and harder to make.

And like the uptick in academic casework requiring both “more staff to handle the caseload” and a strategic response to attempt to reduce it, this also feels like a phenomenon that needs a real step back.

That’s not to suggest that we go back to the days of clips around ears and letting them get on with it – but it is to suggest that it’s in everyone’s interests to reduce conflict on campus manifesting in the intractability of complaints processes.


My sense is that as well as those who have objectively experienced discrimination in the past finding a voice, a set of academic explanations, and a set of tactics to tackle it in the ease of organisation on social media, we are also experiencing (both in higher education and wider society) extreme social fracturing.

The concept of the “filter bubble” on social media need not be rehearsed here for Wonkhe readers – save to say that my own observations on the interactions that both of my kids are having suggest to me that the “problem” of cancel culture and conflict between groups is both upstream from higher education and much wider than its boundaries.

Nevertheless, one of the “ideas” of a university thrown at the sector is that it is a place where people mix, are challenged and learn new ideas – even if every time I hear that I wonder if students with busy timetables on vocational programmes share that idea, or anything close to the experience. See also those that will enrol fleetingly onto their Lifelong Learning Entitlement modules in the coming years.

The obvious problems concern the ways in which the mass higher education experience is not suited to those sorts of exchanges. Students are busy. Class sizes are growing. Loneliness seems persistently high. Programmes can be dominated by a particular set of student characteristics.

Both universities and SUs have become much better in recent decades at enabling “minority” (or at least those different to the average student of the past) students to find and spend time with each other, and many belonging initiatives are focussed on students of a particular sort finding common ground, cause and conversation.

But add all of that up, and it’s almost certainly true that both online and in reality, students are spending less time with each other – and in particular, less time with people that are not like them. They are also sent powerful signals about protection and safety – of everyone being valued, and of a desire to ensure that all students feel safe.

Safety first

As they should be. Back in 2019 when we first undertook research work on loneliness, we found a powerful correlation between feelings of safety and confidence to express oneself. Despite the childish and simplistic ranting of the ultra-libertarians, it’s obvious that it’s hard to learn when you don’t feel safe.

Of course subsequently we’ve also found that safety is closely negatively correlated with loneliness and anxiety – and it remains the case that about one in five students say that they feel lonely “every day”.

I therefore think we can see two things going on across campuses. For the majority of students, there is a confidence problem that is fuelled by a lack of social mixing, a lack of participation in activities that might offer challenge to their worldview, and a deep desire to not get things wrong in public.

But then for organised groups, and (with scaffolds of support for complaint raising) a growing number of individual students,  having been promised equality, safety and “zero tolerance” they then reach for the complaints code to resolve social, moral, ethical and other conflicts that are difficult.

As I say, I don’t think the answer is dismantle the progress on equality, and I don’t think the right response is to reduce the expectation that everyone should be able to study safely.

But it does seem to me that to reconcile the twin duties that are being placed on universities – to both prevent harassment and promote free speech – something much more impactful than an online module on each will need to be implemented at pace and scale.

Yes but does it scale

In the discussion at St George’s House, there were plenty of ideas on how universities might take action to enable students to do everything from “disagree well” to engage in political debate. There were, in particular, inspiring stories from students present. But as with so many of those discussions, the question of scalability was eating away at the back of my mind – as were questions over the ability for students to take part in “another thing” even if budget was to be found to stage it.

Some argue that it is teachers and teaching that should do the heavy lifting – and there’s something in that for some students on some programmes. It can’t be beyond the sector to make the first few sessions in a module more social. But that too feels like a tall order as the inevitability of a growing staff student ratio, and any number of other agendas, enter into a profession that has a pretty loose definition of what teaching or teachers even do, and the standards to which they should do it.

And in any case, whatever is done both needs to be done quite quickly (the transition into university being an unavoidable agenda) and arguably needs to be not done by “the university” – both because students are unlikely to share, experiment or question in the presence of “authority”, but also because if the signal is sent that “the university” expects X or requires Y, it doesn’t solve the central democratic and social problem – that complaints “culture” aims its much of its ire at those in power rather than others in society.

I say that partly because I was reflecting at the event on the way in which the two big sources of conflict in the culture wars – trans and the Middle East – have changed inside student politics over the years. I worked at NUS when students leading the LGB campaign had a multi-year and protracted debate about adding the T – and then later split the T off into a sub group with its own officer.

I was around when students themselves went from determining whether sex or self-determined gender identity should determine whether someone could take part in the NUS Women’s Campaign. And I was present for long annual debates over the boundaries of antisemitism at NUS National Conference, which often reflected similar debates being staged on campus.

Of course the past is a foreign country – they do things differently there – but I doubt anyone could make a coherent case that students themselves are exploring and setting the rules themselves any more. Outside of electing central celebrity student reps each March, democratic participation is at a pretty low ebb.

And add to that the managerialism of both students’ unions and universities – where democracy is re-imagined as feedback that helps someone else deliver an objective – and no wonder students don’t feel equipped to do this sort of thing themselves now.

They don’t know each other, they don’t know how to know each other, and we tell them that they don’t need to in order to pass. And if they want something, they ask for it from authority, which is bound to over promise and under deliver – but they never, ever, ever have to negotiate with students with competing demands themselves. Because it’s not their decision.

Look East

So what is to be done? Since returning from this year’s SUs study tour, I’ve been effusing about approaches to induction and transition that we’ve seen in action not just in Finland and the Baltics but across Europe – and there’s three that I want to go over again here.

The first is compulsory, student-led social induction – which offers a scaffold onto which any number of agendas can be delivered in an efficient and human way, including navigating the campus, coping with stress, avoiding academic integrity and finding part-time work. It also helps students understand how their university community works at pretty much the only time they’re desperate to know that – it communicates what we are like around here and how we treat each other.

There’s a danger that folk in the sector misunderstand it as more akin to the optional (and much less group-focussed) peer assisted learning schemes that already exist across HE. In the schemes we’ve seen, the whole ideas is that students are supported as a(n) often deliberately diverse group – learning literally how to build social capacity. Social, not academic, learning.

That these schemes are SU-led is crucial too – because the signal is sent that the social environment is owned by students, and conflict in it is usually to be resolved by students.

The second relates to group and identity formation. I’m endlessly struck by the extent to which the scaffolds for it in UK higher education are focussed around student characteristics and hobbies and clubs – which more often than not are proxies for student characteristics anyway.

Some of that is about teaching practice and some of it is about organising events and projects at subject level, but again the danger I think is that we misread what could be gone in the Maths department or for Physics students as things that “we” have to do for “them”.

The big difference across Europe isn’t so much that students do more in their department than they do in sports clubs or the Pride society – it’s that associative scaffolds are in place that both cause students to think that it could be them involved in running it next year, and establish that it is for them as students to stage it.

Those scaffolds – usually mini students’ unions without the trustee boards or the key performance indicators – look like diverse groups of students whose job it is to meet the needs of students by engaging with those who make decisions in their subject, offering support and social activity to each other, and visibly advocating for each other without having to book an appointment or call a hotline – even though those are still there in extremis.

And it means that it’s almost never a school student belonging manager or an SU activities department or a careers function that is putting on a craft night or a quiz evening or a networking event. It’s students.

It’s why, at places like the University of Twente in the Netherlands, there’s an explicit and monitored university goal that all students take part in at least one associative student-led community made up of staff and fellow students.

The third is democratic participation itself. Neither universities nor SUs offer much of it these days (outside of those celebrity elections) – too expensive, too bureaucratic, too messy, too “hard”.

Those things are true. But when students in some countries stage a huge election for the many multiple members of a university council, or when the budget can only be passed with the consent of the democratically constituted body in the university, or even when the Rector is elected rather than appointed by a panel, a level of debate and discussion surrounds it that permeates into the student body with a central message – this, in part, is ours – and conflicts over who gets what are ours to resolve.

Endless democratic reviews in SUs and hobbyist citizen panel initiatives in universities miss the central problem – the result never matters. If the sector is set forever on centralising power and “managing” objectives and reputation, it will never cause people to even get into a virtual room to debate with others. Because while the participation might be less fusty, there will still be no point.

It’s up to us

In all of these examples of practice we’ve seen, it’s obvious to students that it is students themselves that both have the right to feel safe, and the responsibility (and devolved power) to deliver an environment of safety and equality that both explores and balances my interests with others’.

It means that the incompatible demands of institutional neutrality and the correction of injustice become compatible – because students’ own participation is guaranteed through scaffolds that support the former, and real results that support the latter.

Maybe these sorts of approaches won’t work, and maybe they’re just too hard to contemplate for a sector that is strapped of cash, especially as the teams that own each of the student support and delivery agendas jockey to avoid the cuts that are coming.

But the prospect is there and the challenge is real. And the idea that the purchase of two online modules this summer to please the regulator – one on free speech and the other on harassment – will do anything other than make all of this worse is for the birds.

Changing the way universities (and their SUs) support students and make decisions – towards structures of community and away from professionalised support – isn’t just necessary in the financial state we’re in, and it isn’t just necessary to ensure that students know how to interact with each other outside of complaints.

It’s needed because without it, the whole idea of democracy – that we get to resolve our competing interests in dialogue with each other – will die much faster than any of us previously thought possible. In an age where 42 per cent of people aged 18 to 35 are supportive of dictatorships rather than democracy, the time to be radical on this stuff is right now.

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