This article is more than 5 years old

Opening up student debate on campus

Sara Khan, the Liberation & Access Officer at University of Manchester students’ union, says that their efforts to open up debate need applauding, not derision.
This article is more than 5 years old

Sarah Khan is the Access and Liberation Officer at the University of Manchester Students' Union

The way in which politics is managed and conducted is often hostile – we see that on a national stage every day of the week.

At the Conservative party conference this year, universities minister Sam Gyimah said that “if we want to have people who are peacemakers – lawyers, politicians, whatever, in future – who can see the other person’s point of view, then we need to start in our schools and our universities in how we conduct our debate”. On this we agree.

It’s why our student senate has discussed and agreed a policy on how debates are to be conducted in our students’ union (SU). We want to promote a better way of doing politics so that people from all walks of life find it easier to participate in the decision making that will affect the way their union and their university is run. Inclusivity is one of our students’ union’s founding principles, and given that minority groups are underrepresented in politics, we are taking action to address that. This policy is one way of doing so.

Positive responses

The element that the media has picked up relates to our decision to encourage the use of British Sign Language (BSL) clapping during our democratic events. We are not banning audible clapping – we understand that some people may be more comfortable to continue using it – but we are keen to make our events more accessible and inclusive for all. And we have already received many positive responses from disabled students (some of whom are deaf or autistic) who are pleased to feel more included in our democratic process. Some of them plan to attend upcoming democratic events at the SU for the first time thanks to this policy.

We are not, of course, applying this motion to all events held at the SU. We hold a huge number of events – including gigs, theatre productions and sport – and this policy has no bearing on those events which make up the majority of a packed calendar at the SU. It is only intended to be encouraged at the union’s democratic events – those in which our members are invited to participate in debate and discussion. In fact, those democratic events make up a relatively small number of meetings inside the organisation each year.

A challenge from the minister

Gyimah’s challenge at the conference was about “how you conduct debate”. We believe that in those politically-focused events – where students’ voices are being amplified – as many people as possible should feel comfortable attending in order for as many people as possible to have their voices heard. It’s precisely this kind of policy – comfortable spaces that engender and facilitate often uncomfortable debate – that help avoid the sort of “monoculture” that Gyimah suggests exists on campuses, though perhaps not quite in the way he was thinking.

The minister also used conference fringe events to make remarks about the black attainment gap and cultural appropriation. The former is a complex area whose causes include leadership, student support and yes, the curriculum. In fact, our student leaders are playing a key role in amplifying this issue at the University of Manchester. We’re holding debates, generating policy and lobbying senior university figures to make changes. When the minister claims that students raising the diversity of authors and experts in a degree programme results in the debate being “shut down”, he’s just plain wrong. It’s actually an example of the debate being opened up. It might feel challenging and uncomfortable to people in power, but that requires engagement and debate, not condemnation.

Students need solutions, not derision

Mental health, housing and student costs remain the key issues facing students in Manchester, as they are around the country. So far this year, as well as endless, baseless accusations of a “monoculture”, we’ve seen the minister merely “endorse” a charter on mental health, and offer no solutions on housing or student hardship. If we really want a diverse and challenging debate on campus – that everyone can benefit from – it would help if the self-appointed “minister for students” turned his attention to the real problems that we face, rather than the fabricated ones that some in the press and politics endlessly replay for political point-scoring.

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