Back in October, we pledged that we would reflect and act on ongoing debates about students’ unions, freedom of speech and freedom of expression on campus.
We’d rather not have had to. This pandemic has been punishing for students and difficult for students’ unions. Students feel ignored and let down by a system that appears to value their financial contribution more than their mental health.
So the work that our colleagues, staff and volunteers around the country have led has been vital – alleviating loneliness, delivering support for self-isolation, and advocating for students to be treated with empathy and respect as they battle to better themselves from their bedroom desks.
Yet even during a pandemic, we’ve had to turn our attention to those who criticise us. There’s no time for a culture war – but private members’ bills, letters to the Prime Minister and endless press stories continue to accuse us of restricting freedom of speech, banning speakers, imposing our views on students and promoting a political “monoculture” on campus.
The picture of one of student intolerance toward debate – when the day to day reality is much more complex.
The good news
Research from King’s College London last year found that 81 per cent of students think that freedom of expression is more important than ever, with 86 per cent specifically concerned that social media is enabling people to express intolerant views which prevents people from engaging freely. It also found that most students consider freedom of expression to be more threatened in the UK overall than in their own university.
More often than not, the students’ unions, guilds and associations that we lead and the clubs and societies we fund and support are an important facilitator of freedom of speech and debate on campus. A survey of 61 university students’ unions in December 2020 found that in 2019-20, just 6 events from almost 10,000 involving an external speaker (0.06%) were cancelled – mainly for failing to follow basic administrative processes.
But there is nonetheless a concern that there is a “chilling effect”, and a danger of a prophecy that self-fulfils. And there are grains of truth in the idea that from time to time, and with the best of intentions, our organisations inadvertently look closed to debate and hostile to challenge.
As we said in October, if universities and their students’ unions merely dismiss criticism out of hand we will look closed to feedback and unwilling to engage in a “good faith” discussion about our activities. When we are defensive, we look unwilling to engage in the very culture of debate on campus that we seek to protect.
Responding not reacting
So over the past few months we have been working as a group of students’ unions with support from the team at Wonkhe to listen carefully to the criticisms, to try better understand rather than reject them out of hand, and to identify how they might be meaningfully and seriously addressed.
Following a detailed consultation our new report recommends the creation of a code for students’ unions which establishes and reinforces important principles on campus of political diversity and freedom of expression. We propose to substantially adopt widely used principles within the free speech policy statement produced by the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago to send a clear signal – that our campuses and unions are open for debate.
At UoC, the university “committed [itself] to the principle that it may not restrict debate or deliberation because the ideas put forth are thought to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed”. It did, however, recognise that this freedom is not absolute, and that expression could be restricted if it was “threatening, harassing, or defamatory, or invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests”.
Campus freedom of speech and diverse political activity on campus will be protected, strengthened and championed under our proposals.
In our report we set out a clear roadmap for regulation of students’ union activity in this space with clarity for those that wish to raise a complaint or concern. And we propose that the National Union of Students, Universities UK and other sector bodies work together to identify how they might collaborate to streamline and support the process of attracting, contacting, risk assessing and researching external speakers – developing an online speakers’ pool in the process.
We will always defend the right of students to oppose, protest and debate others’ views – which is almost always about helping our articulate, intelligent, and astute students to engage in debate. It’s incredibly rare that universities or students’ unions have to restrict a speaker – and our proposals will make clear why and how that happens.
We call for all students to be informed of how they might obtain funding or support for a student group of any political stripe, advocate that the requirements of the Education (no 2) Act 1986 (Freedom of Speech) apply directly to students’ union activities, and recommend reviews of external events and speaker policies to ensure that processes are kept as rapid in execution and as simple to understand as possible.
We also believe that in principle, no event should ever be cancelled due to a society or SU not feeling able to meet security costs.
In our call for evidence we found examples of strong partnerships between universities and students’ unions over freedom of speech and political diversity.
But we also found unhelpful examples – gaps and overlaps in policies, a lack of clarity over complaints and an occasional tendency on the part of universities, often in the heat of public scrutiny, to distance themselves from their student groups or unions.
We think a partnership approach that celebrates the rights of students to debate and be challenging is essential, and so our proposed code should form a part of wider relationship agreements between students’ unions and universities.
Put simply, we think it’s time that universities worked with their students and students’ unions to take the debate forward. We are confident that our proposals will help to do so.