University: Where free speech goes to die?

23 Jun 2017

University is no longer the bastion of academic and intellectual diversity that it once was. Increasingly, we are seeing the political beliefs of students and academics being suppressed in institutions where ideological diversity should be cherished. This piece comes after a BBC article said that Dr Lucy Delap had urged colleagues at the University of Cambridge to stop using terms such as ‘brilliant’ or ‘genius’ as they alienate female students.


Over the last few years, organisations such as the National Union of Students (NUS) have gained quite a reputation in the media for hijacking the spotlight when it comes to education. They are causing the public, and even students, to disassociate with student politics, and have rendered themselves a national joke.


NUS presidential candidate Tom Harwood touched on this in one of his campaign videos. He sought to highlight the farce that the NUS had become by listing its blunders. Such examples include: arguing that prisons should be banned, asking everyone to use jazz-hands as opposed to clapping, and plans to abolish the monarchy.


The increase of 'safe spaces' as a means of protecting students who might otherwise feel offended has gone beyond the point of seriousness. It’s now almost impossible to have a political debate at a university without the prospect of offending someone. One of the most prominent examples of this is Germaine Greer, who was denied a speaking platform at several universities due to her views on transgender people.


This sort of censorship is partly the reason why the media have chosen to portray students as 'snowflakes'.


Another prime example of student unions blocking freedom of speech can be found in the case of my former Conservative Association at the University of Lincoln. The society chose to question the student union on its poor record of free speech and, as a direct result, had its social media account suspended. This gathered the attention of not just the local MP, but also the national media because, yet again, a student-run organisation was censoring the views of students who differed from their own.


Though, this wasn’t the first time that Lincoln’s student union had made national headlines.


In May 2016, the university held a referendum on membership of the NUS. Although turnout was low, Lincoln became the first university to leave the NUS by a vote of 881 to 804.


Some of the most prestigious universities such as Oxford and Warwick have also caught the eye of the media. Student run campaigns such as ‘Rhodes Must fall’, which originated in South Africa and gained momentum at the University of Oxford, is one such example in which students called for the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes was a historic donor to the university and had bequeathed over £100,000 to Oriel College to help set up the 'Rhodes scholarship' which has helped hundreds of students get to Oxford.


Similarly, at Royal Holloway, there was a campaign to remove the statue of Queen Victoria. Granted. this campaign didn’t gain as much support as ‘Rhodes Must Fall’, but it nevertheless highlighted a growing divide between generations.


If we begin to censor ideas and beliefs simply because they may offend someone, then we risk killing freedom of speech at university altogether. Students should feel comfortable at university, whatever their political or ideological beliefs. Students should be free to question authority and should be actively encouraged to do so.







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