Interrogating the culture wars story of the week

A big culture wars story this week has been the announcement that a midwifery student banned from her hospital placement over her pro-life views has secured a settlement from her university.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Julia Rynkiewicz was suspended from her placement after a lecturer at the University of Nottingham reported her involvement with the university’s Students for Life society.

She was then subject to a fitness-to-practise investigation which saw her delay her studies and left her without access to student finance – despite the allegations being eventually dismissed. The university has now apologised and agreed a settlement.

A University of Nottingham spokesperson said:

While all universities take fitness-to-practice considerations extremely seriously, the university has offered an apology and settlement to Ms Rynkiewicz and is considering how we might approach such cases differently in future.

The university and Students’ Union supports the rights of all students to bodily autonomy and access to safe, legal abortion services, which is the position in law. Universities should be spaces to debate, discuss and disagree points of view, and with more than 200 student societies, covering the full range of beliefs and perspectives, we are confident this is the case at Nottingham.”

One organisation taking a particular interest in the case has been ADF International (UK), who published a poll this week that found that 44 per cent of students “self-censor” in front of lecturers for fear that they would be “treated differently” if they expressed their real opinions.

It got coverage in the Mail on Sunday:

More than a quarter of students ‘self-censor’ because they fear their views will clash with the ‘woke’ values promoted by their university, according to a shocking new survey. In the latest evidence of the free speech crisis engulfing campuses across the country, 27 per cent of students said they have actively ‘hidden’ their opinions when they are at odds with those of their peers and tutors. More than half of those who ‘self-censored’ did so because of their political views. A further 40 per cent withheld their opinions on ethical or religious matters for fear of being judged.

ADF says it is “sending a letter” to No.10 to seek urgent action on the issue, asking government take steps to end to “no-platforming” and strengthen legal safeguards for academic freedom.

The research is worth a closer look. It’s an unweighted survation poll of 526 students and 502 graduates, where the latter group have graduated in the past five years – so if on a standard undergraduate programme were Freshers in 2012. Graduates were twice as likely to have “strongly agreed” that the cancellation of events due to views held by the speakers had become more frequent – something they probably would believe if they read the Mail on Sunday.

The MoS was worried about the views of universities and SUs:

More than a third (36 per cent) of students hold views that are legal to express but that would be considered ‘unacceptable’ by their student union

But a closer look at the question reveals that it actually was worded as follows:

I hold some views that are legal to express, but my university, student union or peers consider these views unacceptable”.

Once you add in peers, you wonder how it’s as low as 30 per cent! Who doesn’t have peers that would consider at least some of their views as unacceptable?

Similarly, to get to the required percentage on event cancellation, the question is worded as:

The cancellation of events due to views held by the speakers, and pressure from other student groups, has become more frequent at my university.

Crucially, a close look at the types of views hidden is interesting too. The Mail naturally insinuates – but the polling is much less certain. Only 13 per cent of students have hidden political views, 9 per cent have hidden religious views and 7 per cent have hidden ethical views. That suggests a remarkably open student culture to me.

The Mail says that ADF is a “faith-based legal advocacy organisation”, which is one way of putting it. It’s explicitly anti-LGBT and behind supposedly “grassroots” movements against assisted dying. It opposes “buffer zones” limiting pro-life protests around British abortion clinics for example. It doesn’t disclose its funders, but US journalists have previously traced at least $1 million in grants to ADF from a foundation controlled by the billionaire family of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education secretary, and Erik Prince, founder of the Blackwater mercenary firm.

A piece on OpenDemocracy has more detail:

ADF was co-founded by Alan Sears, a US Christian right leader who co-authored a book against “the homosexual agenda”. It is increasingly active internationally, including in Latin America. It supported a 2016 law in Belize making gay sex punishable with 10 years in jail. This group tripled its annual spending in Europe between 2012 and 2016, to more than $2.6 million a year. It now has offices in Belgium, France, Austria, Switzerland and the UK, and spends hundreds of thousands of euros lobbying EU officials, according to separate transparency data.

Among its European projects, the group has supported the defence of a notorious German activist who compared abortion to the Holocaust and accused specific doctors of murder. This year, ADF International also co-hosted an event with the French group La Manif Pour Tous, which has been previously been linked to the far-right party Front National.

One organisation that takes a particular interest in the work of ADF, its polling and that student midwife case is “Right to Life UK”. It’s a registered charity that describes itself as “seeking to educate, inform, support and undertake research into issues surrounding human life and present this information to the general public, parliamentarians, schools and organisations both religious and secular”, and “provides material and practical support to new mothers in need by supplying baby clothes, hardware and other products which will assist them in the early years of their baby’s life.” A quick glance at its website suggests a slightly more political tone than that all implies.

It’s interesting that universities and students unions are portrayed as pushing a “woke” agenda, holding partisan opinions and being overtly political when the reality of campus culture tends to be much more politically diverse and apolitical. But charities like RtL exist whose objects are fairly apolitical, but whose activities seem to have explicitly political aims.

All sorts of student societies should exist on campus, however controversial with mainstream student opinion or the leadership of universities and SUs – and it’s true that sometimes SUs have been too quick to try to ban them. But I’ve spent a career now coming across organisations – from all kinds of political extremes – that try to use student societies as a “way in” to influencing students. We should be very alert to anyone that does so or tries to do so, from any political perspective.

One response to “Interrogating the culture wars story of the week

  1. Jim, I’m frankly shocked by what strikes me as a fundamentally dishonest post. By use of juxtaposition, innuendo and sly elision, you suggest that the organization Right to Life UK is financially dodgy (“not clear where RtL gets its money from”), is politically extreme and sinisterly trying to find ‘a way-in to capturing students.’ Yet RtL has among its patrons Rowan Williams (ex Archbishop of Canterbury), Lord Nicholas Windsor (a member of the Royal Family) and a number of Labour and Tory MPs. Before he died, the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs was a patron. You could hardly get more mainstream establishment…..the very opposite of ‘extreme’…. indeed, the charity actually provides the secretariat for a Parliamentary all-party group.If a registered charity with these respectable credentials is to be smeared online and treated with suspicion, then maybe the Daily Mail is right to talk about the HE sector being excessively and intolerantly woke.

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