Free speech 'not an issue' in British university shake-up

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  1. 'Universities should be places that open minds, not close them'
  2. 'Right to free speech not right to platform'
  3. Critics call new regulator 'Office for State Control'
  4. Battleground in the UK matches US free speech row

When journalist and author Michela Wrong was set to visit __

Free speech issues have been plaguing universities, as students’ unions go head-to-head with their university chancellors and the rest of the country in a battle between political correctness and intellectual open mindedness – the latter thought to be a defining characteristic for learning and critical thinking.

That’s all set to be settled as British universities hurtle towards a new climate with the launch of a new regulator. The Office for Students opens up shop in April, and is set to transform the higher education sector from simply a place of education into a market. It says it will put students first, a challenge that comes after a move to charge up to £9,000 a year for tuition that some argued turned universities from schools into businesses.

But it’s already proving controversial (The Times HE). Critics said the “Office for State Control” would be a more fitting title, warning it was  was “dangerous for democracy”. *context*

Before this, after appointing the author and provocateur Toby Young, a petition to remove him from the post received more than 220,000 signatures. This was followed by nation-wide uproar, the uncovering of old tweets of his that spoke disrespectfully about women’s bodies, and then his swift removal.

*quote about OfS controversy* – Former universities minister Jo Johnson?

As well as holding universities to account for value for money and quality of student life one of the group’s goals, and a subject that is regularly making headlines, is to prevent assaults on freedom of speech at universities. The board will keep universities in check and make sure they uphold free speech, or else. Campuses that fail to comply with the Education Act 1986 – that enshrines free speech rights in universities – could face interventions, sanctions, and even fines, says CEO Nicola Dandridge.

*quote from Nicola*

The OfS will also take aim at “no-platforming,” the contentious practice of outrightly banning speakers that has been particularly pronounced in the United States for its symbolism of the anger with controversial characters on college campuses.

Right-wing journalist and ex-Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos’ planned appearance at the Berkeley campus of the University of California last year was blocked after “violent” demonstrations by students (CNN). In a similar vein, libertarian scholar and author Charles Murray met protesters when he arrived at Harvard College to give a talk in September (Washington Post).

On British soil the situation is similar, but less acute.Yiannapoulos, along with feminist Julie Bindel, was also denied a platform Bindel at an event to be held at the University of Manchester in 2015. Meanwhile, a lecture by Australian feminist scholar Germaine Greer, well-known in the UK for her views on transgender women that have been called “problematic,” (The Guardianwas postponed after she was accused of being “transphobic” by students at Cardiff University in Wales. 

Bristol University went a step further when the students’ union voted to pass a motion to completely no-platform “trans-exclusionary radical feminists,” (“Terfs”) a derogatory term that is used to describe people who don’t believe that transgender women are the same as cisgender women (The Times), including Greer. The motion is yet to become official union policy, but the university’s chancellor came down hard on no-platforming and the creation of “safe spaces” in 2017, saying that “universities are robust enough” to “deal with a range of ideas” including those that are “absurd and even obscene.”

Former universities minister Jo Johnson mirrored this, defending plans to allow the OfS (The Guardian) to fine or suspend institutions that fail to protect freedom of speech on campuses, stating: “Universities should be places that open minds not close them, where ideas can be freely challenged.”

But nearly two-thirds of UK university students said the National Union of Students (NUS) is right to enforce its “no platform” policy (Independent) that bans six organizations it describes as “individuals or members of organisations or groups identified by the Democratic Procedures Committee as holding racist or fascist views.” It’s due to add another, the white nationalist Britain First. But other students and education officials disagree with the practice.

“I completely disagree with no-platforming,” says Ariel Carson, a 23-year-old post-graduate photography student at University of the Arts London. “I believe very strongly in free speech and take the view that if a particular individual is a horrible idiot the best thing to do is usually to shine a spotlight on them … I am not keen on totalitarianism, quasi censorship or anything else that comes close to creating a social consensus that George Orwell’s 1984 though crime exists in real life.” However, she says the same rules of free speech shouldn’t apply to people who have committed crimes, though controversial views aren’t against the law.

*Amatey on no-platforming*

No-platforming, hate speech, and the media-student culture war

As the difference between hate speech and free speech is unrelentingly argued, some kind of culture war between students and the media prevails in the UK and in much of the United States. Young adults are labelled “snowflakes,” and tabloids routinely find ways to patronize those in university.


students don’t care that much about free speech –  snowflake generation quote


However, the OfS has its own risks to free speech, says Louis Coiffait, associate editor of Wonhe…. *quotes*  regulating free speech risks hindering it even more…


Free speech ‘not biggest issue’

While free speech issues surrounding students are often those most covered by the media, it is not a big issue, says Amatey Doku, the vice president for Higher Education at the National Union of Students (NUS), the biggest group representing UK students.

Free speech wasn’t the focus of much of the panel events and speakers at a conference in London’s British Library attended to by some of the university sector’s most notable figures including the CEO of OfS, Nicola Dandridge. It was mentioned maybe once or twice but issues like how universities will report to the new regulator were the main focus. “________,” Dandridge said in a side room at the event, hosted by Wonkhe, a think-tank and blog about higher education.


An office for students without the students

The Office for Students has received criticism for the strong links between its board and university management (i paper). This, say critics, risks the body’s neutrality as a regulator that is supposed to champion students.

But there’s enough student representation, says Ruth Carlson, a civil engineering student at the University of Surrey and the only student on the board. *quotes from Ruth*



End: tie up

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