What kind of free speech problem are we trying to solve?

Here at Wonkhe towers we’ve been beavering away supporting a group of students’ unions to try to progress the agenda over campus politics and freedom of speech.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Much of the concern in the press that the SUs are trying to respond to focuses on external speakers, and the so-called practice of “no platforming”.

It can mean many things of course – and can include refusing to host an event, as well as members of the elected SU leadership refusing to share a platform with a specific speaker or a speaker from a specific organisation. It also includes instances where an SU may have a pre-existing policy on a speaker or organisation, where an SU does not hold a pre-existing policy but reaches a decision to regulate or halt an event, and even where students merely campaign to have an event or speaker cancelled regardless of whether an SU or university resolves to do so.

One of the things I’ve been re-attempting to do is get a sense of the scale here – how many events with external speakers are clubs and societies putting on, how many result in a cancellation, that sort of thing. And something remarkable is jumping out at me from the data.

Some SUs have many hundreds of these sorts of events a year. And some have almost none. There are clear patterns. And the differences in scale don’t look explainable via overall institutional size or via subject mix.

I’m going to need to do some number crunching once the full data is in, but there naturally appears to be a London bias and what looks like a moderate SU funding impact. But what’s striking as I run my eyes down the list in so far is the volume of external speakers appearing at elite institutions as opposed to everywhere else.

This in many ways makes some sense. The sorts of clubs and societies that thrive in the more elite “end” of the sector will play a role. The value placed by students on extra-curricular activity focussed on “politics” or “debate” will also vary in different bits of the sector, via habits carried through schooling. Access to the kinds of networks that would even generate a high-profile invite feels like it’ll be related to the class proxies of institutional diversity, as will the willingness of external speakers to pitch up.

While I’ve been working on this, some universities have seemed to be very proud that their numbers of bans are low, stressing that this freedom of speech agenda isn’t a problem for them or “their students”. The subtext seems to be that is a “problem” confined to the Russell Group. That might be true – but I’m starting to wonder whether this whole agenda not being a problem in a given university is much to be proud of. I’m certainly maintaining a healthy suspicion of simplifications like “our students aren’t political”, which even if true from an instincts perspective sounds like something to work on rather than merely accept.

This all may well need more and better research. But what I can see on my little google sheet is a genuine freedom of speech and political diversity crisis – just not of the sort that policy makers would have you believe. Access to events featuring external speakers – with all the supposed benefits that brings – is strongly pocketed into parts of the sector. The luxury of even having the option to ban or turn down an external speaker is just not one that seems to be on offer to hundreds of thousands of students.

We’ll need to better understand why, in time. But it does raise interesting questions. Given the positive role that external speakers can play, to what extent is government policy preoccupied with increasing the volume and diversity of speakers on campus? How much effort do universities put in to supporting their SU and its societies to attract a diverse and rich programme of external speaker visits? Have we been sleepwalking into a situation where we’ve focussed all of our time on regulating external speakers without figuring out how to attract a wider range of them into a wider range of universities? And what would it look like if every university in the country pledged to work with its SU to use its networks and influence to set targets for massively expanding opportunities to meet and debate with important figures?

3 responses to “What kind of free speech problem are we trying to solve?

  1. When it comes down to it most SU’s are fronted and run by a hard-core of activist students, most students have neither the time nor inclination to become involved especially when they know their personal political opinions will likely lead to conflict and even false accusations to de-person or suspend them. The hard-core are all too often incapable of reasoning and debate on an adult level, relying on feelings and emotional response to everything, confronted by cold hard facts they revert to child like tantrums and Universities fearing bad NSS reviews pander to them. De-platforming and suppression of ‘free-speech’ are symptoms of much deeper problems both within Universities and wider society.

    1. I’m guessing you see no irony in writing something that reads as a ‘child like tantrum’ without presenting any ‘cold hard facts,’ John?

  2. John, I can’t say that’s been my experience either as a non sabbatical officer when I was a student or subsequently working sabbatical officers at various universities. They may have political beliefs, but they don’t tend to be hard core activists (with one or two exceptions across my years in the sector). In fact, students tend t find the activists off-putting when voting!

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