Students’ unions may be on the front line of the culture wars on university campuses. But they are not the enemy.
Historically in the debate over freedom of speech, students’ unions have been portrayed as being in need of taming. The cliche may have evolved from the firebrand activist addressing protesting students through a loud hailer on the streets, to snowflake keyboard warriors cancelling people on Twitter, but the anxiety about the influence of left wing student leaders on university campus culture has not.
Now, universities hasten to offer reassurance that they “support” and “work with” their students’ unions to secure freedom of speech on campus. But let’s keep in mind how universities, as a general rule, comply with their legal duty on freedom of speech. They publish formal policies and support/enforce adherence to them, they implement monitoring regimes tracking and recording processes incidents, and they report on the data.
This is not a criticism. It is how things are done in universities and it produces the kind of paperwork that satisfies governors and regulators. As charities, students’ unions are subject to regulation by both their host institution on a day to day basis, and on legal compliance (including with Prevent), by the Charity Commission. Therefore students’ unions dutifully insist that processes are followed, forms are filled, and data is reported.
All of this is right and proper for well-governed organisations, but it does not address the real cultural issues that the freedom of speech debates boil down to, which are about the fight between the causes of liberty and security – one of the key political dividing lines of our time.
Nor does it engage with the issue that, due in large part to social media, political cultures and public speech have “broadened” to include the airing of views that were formerly considered well beyond the boundaries of what reasonable people would even care to consider, a phenomenon which is chipping away at the established norms of liberal democracies across the developed world.
Anne Applebaum argues in Twilight of Democracy (2020) that the West has historically been rather smug about our tolerance of different points of view as part of the national political debate. But the limits of the available platforms to air those views acted as a natural brake on the expression of opinions considered without merit – Applebaum suggests that the most important debates since 1945 have essentially been between the centre left and the centre right, with the foundations of the postwar settlement rarely challenged. All this has changed rapidly, especially in the last decade:
Above all, the old newspapers and broadcasters created the possibility of a single national conversation. In many advanced democracies there is now no common debate, let alone a common narrative. People have always had different opinions. Now they have different facts.
As threatening as all this sounds, one effect has also been to bring previously marginalised voices and perspectives into public consciousness and influence – think #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo. What is considered to be a reasonable and legitimate object of debate is, after all, partly a function of who holds political power and has access to a platform – one of the reasons free speech is so important in the first place.
In this context, the institutions of civil society that are tasked with protecting democratic debate – universities and other education institutions, yes, but also media, and political institutions – are increasingly frail.
The struggle is real
Students’ unions exist to channel the democratic voice of their members and represent their interests to their institutions, in their localities and in national political debate. Like any small-p-political institution they often struggle with doing this effectively – there are many voices, many views, and many priorities. The need is frequently greater than the capacity. University staff frequently complain that student representatives don’t adequately represent the diversity of students’ interests. You could reasonably say the same thing of our national politicians. Nobody said democratic representation was easy.
But, importantly, universities have no such overt democratic duty. Their allegiance is to the advancement of knowledge by scientific and rational means. The principle of academic freedom secures the right of academics to pursue knowledge wherever it may lead. While, by law, universities may not use their institutional power to stifle free speech, they have no obligation to promote debate. Many do, as part of their wider civic mission, and because doing so enriches the process of extending knowledge, and because, especially in pre-92 institutions, it’s seen as fostering the academic community environment that prospective students (and staff) sign up for when they apply.
Yet not enough time is devoted to thinking through the synergies between the democratic purposes of students’ unions and the educational purposes of universities. When serious social questions arise, students naturally have views, and may have demands of their universities, or their political representatives, arising from those views. Some of those views will be in conflict with each other. The knowledge of the university is the resource that students can draw on to inform their views. The students’ union is the neutral space where those views can be aired, discussed, unpacked, unpicked, and challenged.
The struggle is important
I said earlier that students’ unions struggle with effective democracy. That struggle is vital – it’s what keeps student officers and the professional staff who represent them up at night thinking about the meaning of democratic representation. It’s what makes students’ unions the experts in facilitating debate. They need resources and support to continue to develop their thinking on how political debate can happen meaningfully in the social media saturated, polarised, angry world we’re living in right now, driven by the best evidence of what engaging and informative looks like – and the conditions under which it’s possible to improve collective understanding, not just wind everybody up.
The university staff with responsibility for legal and regulatory compliance are not, in the main, worrying about how best to produce positive, inclusive debate in which everyone’s voice can be heard. They’re not going out with (virtual) clipboards to talk to students about their opinions and understand their perspective on the issues that matter to them. And they’re not coming up with fresh formats and ways of asking the question that don’t simply promote the articulation of arguments at the lowest common denominator.
So universities should carry on updating their policies, and collecting the data, and reassuring the regulators that all is in order. And then they should increase their block grant to students’ unions explicitly for the purpose of helping them help students to engage in the debates on the most challenging issues of our time.