If this is a free speech culture war, we’re calling a ceasefire

A group of student leaders reflect on ongoing debates surrounding campus free speech, and propose reflection and action to tackle concerns.

An association of students (usually called a union in England, and sometimes called a guild) exists in pretty much every university in the UK, with variations in most other higher education providers. And we should be very glad that they do.

We have played a crucial role during the pandemic – working closely with universities to provide much needed support to students, facilitating vital opportunities for social connection in an age of social distancing, and in representing students’ views and concerns faithfully both to university management and wider society. Like all good associations, we stepped up when our communities needed us.

Free speech?

Yet you would never know it from reading the popular press. In the media, students and their organisations are vilified and caricatured as “left wing madrassas”. Our student leaders are denigrated as “tin pot politicians”, our services and governance are branded as unprofessional, and we stand accused of silencing students on campus with speaker bans and the whipping up of a “cancel culture”.

As representatives of students, trustees of charities and leaders within higher education, we have a duty to protect the reputation of the organisations we serve, advocate passionately for the interests of our members and defend the people that volunteer and work for us to serve students. In particular we thank the students who, in the grip of a pandemic, have stepped up to serve.

We think that it is reasonable to request that debate about our services and activities is well evidenced and advanced in good faith – how all campus debate should be conducted. Yet often, reporting and discussion in the press and in political circles centres on a handful of misrepresented anecdotes:

  • We facilitate hundreds of thousands of speaker events a year, for example, on some of the most controversial subjects. Yet we are accused of constantly “no platforming” – and even the handful of reported speaker “bans” turn out to be nothing of the sort.
  • The national press leap on the decision of students at Edinburgh (for example) to support the renaming of David Hume Tower, yet ignores the decision of students at Newcastle (for example) to retain the name of the Armstrong building.
  • And when we are accused of engaging in “niche activism”, it often turns out to be the sort of intersectional activity that seeks to redress structural discrimination and tackle harassment – of the sort funded and encouraged by government and regulators.

They don’t believe it

Nevertheless, there is a problem. This year, the government’s higher education restructuring regime suggested that universities accessing the scheme tackle expenditure on SU sabbatical officers and “niche activism”. The Office for Students has announced that it will shortly issue regulatory guidance on public interest governance principles relating to academic freedom and free speech. And the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, has said that “If universities can’t defend free speech, the Government will”.

And the Conservative manifesto promised to strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities. And they won the election.

There is a real danger that we look closed to feedback or unwilling to engage in a “good faith” discussion about our activities. And when we are defensive, we look unwilling to engage in the very culture of debate on campus that we seek to protect. We believe that it is important that the students’ unions and associations, and the wider higher education sector, responds to this in a constructive way, reflecting on events that may have led to concern, identifying the contradictions that might exist within our operating context and seeking to strengthen our practice to give confidence to students, institutions and the wider public.

Crucially, we have to recognise that concerns expressed by the media and government about our role and practice in a number of cases has caused public concern, however frustrating that might be. Our duty to protect our reputation will be strengthened by reflecting carefully – not just on how we are portrayed, but also in relation to what we do, how we do it and the decisions we make. We have to respond, rather than just react.

The truth is in there

We believe, for example, that our clubs and societies are an important facilitator of freedom of speech and debate on campus – but given concerns that some student organisations have been involved in the “banning” or “no platforming” of speakers, we should set high, visible standards for SUs designed to secure the maximum possible level of diversity of viewpoints and debate and discussion on campus.

As charities working to advance education, we promote and engage in analysis, debates and discussions on often highly sensitive issues. There is a long history of students challenging traditional ideas and launching progressive dialogue which can develop thinking and help society thrive. But if some feel bullied, threatened or ostracised because they take a different view to that viewed as “mainstream”, we have to act.

The funding of student organisations is particular to each autonomous higher education provider without any set national practice or expectations. But where we do receive funding it is reasonable to ask if this is providing value and being spent wisely. We think it is time to examine practice surrounding the transparency of SU finances to students, universities and the public and develop standards for monitoring and evaluation in relation to value – just as we would demand of universities.

Around 30,000 student clubs and societies for every type of interest and perspective exist on campuses and are funded and supported by student organisations – providing support with administration, events, financial management and risk. But there are concerns that surround the politicisation of the process of approving and funding student clubs and societies. We want to work to identify what could be done to ensure these processes are demonstrably fair, rules-based and even-handed.

There are other issues. There is a perception that some of our activities are unlawfully political; that our student leaders are ineffective and our processes inefficient; and that our advocacy and support for students is not well run. We have to accept that these perceptions are held by many in good faith – and we have a responsibility to both strengthen practice, tackle poor behaviours and communicate high standards clearly.

Of course, with so many universities, student groups and students, there are going to be occasional issues and flash points. It’s hard to imagine a Saturday in the Premier League where no-one commits a foul or is booked for breaking the rules. We know that there will be occasions where there are controversies, behaviours or practices that fall short of the high standards students ought to expect of us. We would want to work to identify how these might be resolved as swiftly and effectively as possible in the interests of students.

Time for change

We are therefore proposing that we draw together expertise both from within our organisations and the higher education sector, and from across political and professional fields, to examine a number of these areas in detail – with a view to the creation of standards and practice that can assure students, universities and taxpayers that we provide value and protect freedom of speech and expression. We have asked Wonkhe to help us to convene some national conversations and to identify how a positive programme of action might be taken forward.

We want to ask challenging questions. Are the free speech Codes of Practice established under the Education Act 1986 fit for purpose? Are there processes that we undergo – sometimes in the name of compliance or equality – that have a chilling effect on legitimate debate? How can we ensure that those interests or causes that students may wish to form groups around or debate – yet are nevertheless not naturally popular with the students or young people – can be properly and lawfully supported?

Work arising from those conversations could take different forms. There may be a role for a Code of Standards, a suite of new model policies, and even an ombudsperson that might intervene in these issues where there is conflict. In the best traditions of higher education, we should be prepared to develop, agree and hold ourselves to high standards and challenge those that do not meet them. And of course, students should lead that process.

We do not believe, in the middle of what continues to be a challenging global pandemic, that it would be a sensible use of parliamentary time to be debating the minutiae of students’ union or association structures – and we believe that external regulation often fails to cause the cultural change that most are really concerned about. We also would want to avoid expending students’, universities’ or the government’s energy this winter on bad faith skirmishes in a culture war. There are much more important debates to be had about opportunities for young people and the role that education should play in what is likely to be a biting recession.

But we do think we should take criticisms of students’ unions and associations seriously, as far as possible in good faith, and in a way that makes them and their work even better. We hope that that cycle – of feedback, research, reflection and action – is a type of “monoculture” that everyone in this debate can agree on.

3 responses to “If this is a free speech culture war, we’re calling a ceasefire

  1. Many of us working in management of HEIs would not have been able to reach the decisions that have been made to progress and award degrees to our students over the last 6 months had it not been for the careful considerations and input of our SU sabbs. Their perspectives, due care and sensitive reading of the impact on students have been invaluable.

  2. Careful what you wish for… there’s every chance that the debate will head in the direction of voluntary student unionism which radically weakened the position of SUs in Australia

  3. Great thought-piece. SUs are very important organisations in HE playing a key role in representing the student body and enabling a wide range of developmental and social activities. We need a proper and reasoned discussion about the future, to quote the article, ‘to response and not react’. Government – I hope you are paying attention.

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