Wonkfest preview: let it snow

Barely a week passes without a story about “snowflake students” and freedom of speech on campus making the press. So much so that it’s now commonplace for commentators to quote as gospel a phenomenon that many will claim is illusory and constructed, rather than one actually experienced by students day to day.

No platforming, fancy dress rules, clapping, and mental health are all framed as symptoms of a generation of students unable to cope with conflict and challenge and who yearn for safe spaces.  Universities, meanwhile, are seen as pandering to an illiberal agenda of student political correctness and a desire among students to shut down rather than engage in real debate.

Any evidence?

For some – including, it seems, the BBC – there is little evidence of free speech being under threat, with facts, figures or research around this topic not going near to justifying the air time which it receives. Yet for others – seemingly including the minister – it’s the events that don’t go ahead and the students that suffer in silence that demonstrate a dangerous monoculture on campus. Neither side of the debate trusts the other’s honesty or intentions, and we seem trapped in a never-ending cycle of claim and counterclaim that eats up both political will and strategic bandwidth.

So at Wonkfest this year we’re determined to move the debate on – to look at the origins of the campus culture wars, analyse the actions and evidence of policymakers, and think through the reality of campus culture and whether a good hearty discussion or whether more radical interventions from student leaders, academics and university leaders is the answer.

Letter from America

In two of the sessions we are pleased to be joined by Steve Kolowich – the author of the “The State of Conflict” (subsequently turned into the This American Life podcast ‘My effing first amendment’), and more recently “There is no campus speech crisis”. Kolowich has been long been reporting on the culture wars that have been escalating on US campuses. He’ll talk about the state of play in the US and how institutions got into that situation, against a backdrop of wider political polarisation. He’ll also offer up his own challenging perspective on how the UK might learn lessons.

Elsewhere, the nature of students themselves is repeatedly debated. On one level this generation of student works harder, accumulates more debt and is more focused on career outcomes than ever before. Yet they are frequently represented as lazy and entitled. Is grade inflation a reflection of the former or the latter? Ministers want university to be an assault on the senses, but simultaneously want universities to act in loco parentis – are these concepts meaningfully compatible? Panellists on the debate stage will analyse the narrative surrounding students, with participants considering the steps that might be required to shift the narrative, the realities, or both.

State of the unions

Meanwhile, among the critiques of campus culture sit students’ unions. Many of the charges levelled at snowflake students or “PC gone mad” universities surround their work and leadership. It’s why for some, they’re part of the problem – undemocratic, ideological, and unrepresentative of the student body at large. In concert with the NUS, they impose a political world view on students who at best are misrepresented, and at worst denied access to resources, events or even free speech and debate itself.

Yet for others, students’ unions are the solution – a counterweight to the growing corporate power of large universities, clearing houses for genuine diversity and debate, and the source of social innovation – on environmental issues, employment practices, democratic deliberation and emergent social attitudes that reflect a changing generation of students. Also on the debate stage, TEF architect and former civil servant Iain Mansfield will put the case for radical reform of UK students’ unions, while students’ union veteran and Wonkhe associate editor Jim Dickinson will respond – and both will give participants the opportunity to shape the debate on the future role of student representative bodies in higher education.

Wonkfest 2018 takes place at Ravensbourne 5th – 6th November.

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