Michela Wrong’s ears twitched when she realized she was being vetted before giving a talk on reporting in Africa at Bristol University in November. The journalist and author, who spent six years as a correspondent in Africa and is writing her fifth book on the continent, was undergoing a background check courtesy of the students’ union. Her social media profiles and previous work was being inspected as part of a routine check of all speakers to see if she fit their “safe space” policy, she says. Wrong cancelled the talk in a “flash of anger.”
“The very process of being vetted seemed objectionable,” says Wrong, who says she encountered censorship multiple times working in Africa, where journalists are sometimes jailed or murdered. “It seemed to me that the onus was all wrong.” She says writers and journalists get asked to talk often at universities, and they comply because they believe in free speech and want young people to be interested in their work and open their minds. “To discover there’s a possibility of censorship of what you’re saying struck me as bizarre.”
In an email to the International Affairs Society, which invited her, Wrong explained that she could not attend and took “exception to the entire notion of ‘safe spaces’ and the practice of ‘no platforming’.”
University issues are high politics in Britain right now. Tuition fees are regularly used as political footballs, and the student population is routinely criticized for being “Generation Snowflake.” Lecturers are also rattled: academics from 65 institutions are taking strike action in a fight over proposed cuts to pension schemes, heavily disrupting top universities (Financial Times).
Free speech topics are a particular friction point in the UK and United States, as students’ unions go head-to-head with their university chancellors and speakers over political correctness and intellectual open mindedness.
That’s all to be potentially settled, as British universities hurtle towards a new climate with the launch of a new universities regulator. The Office for Students (OfS), that opens up shop in April is set to transform the higher education sector from a place of education into more of a market. It says it will put students first, a change from the current climate in which universities are more like businesses in school. In part, this is due to the transferring of tuition fees from state to students in 2012 in a move that lumped students with fees of up to £9,250 a year.
The OfS will attempt to make going to university more fulfilling and worthwhile by ensuring students have access to quality education, that their interests are protected, and that students with difficult backgrounds and situations, such as mature, part-time or disabled learners, are able to access higher education. Tapping into one of the most tense points of concern for British people is one of the authority’s key aims, that students get value for money.
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.
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 make sure universities uphold free speech, or else. Campuses that fail to demonstrate compliance with the Education Act 1986 – that enshrines free speech rights in universities – could face interventions, sanctions, and even fines, says Nicola Dandridge, CEO of the Office for Students.
“Many, if not everyone, would acknowledge that [free speech is] a really fundamental part of university life, that people can express their opinions, as long as they’re within the law, freely and openly,” she explains. “I think generally universities take free speech very seriously.”
To keep universities in check with free speech policy, they will have to prove to the OfS that they are complying with with it such as by publishing a free speech compliance code.
“I think generally universities take free speech very seriously,” says Dandridge.
Relying on a self-certification system to assess how university leaders are handling things, the OfS leaves room for the twisting of facts. Education providers themselves will register and input information about how they’re running. But Dandridge is confident that universities want to protect student interests. “Our assumption is that universities and providers are going to tell the truth … If there’s suggestion that they’ve misled us, we will come down very heavily,” she says.
One aspect of free speech that has been particularly pronounced in the United States is “no-platforming,” the contentious practice of outrightly banning speakers from giving talks on campus. It’s become a symbol for students’ intolerance of controversial characters on college campuses that wraps into debates on hate speech, “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” (The Guardian).
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. Yiannapoulos, along with feminist writer Julie Bindel, was denied a platform 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 Guardian) was postponed after she was accused of being “transphobic” by students at Cardiff University in Wales.
Bristol University’s students’ union went a step further when it 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 (Al-Muhajiroun, British National Party (BNP), English Defence League, Hizb-ut-Tahir; Muslim Public Affairs Committee, and National Action) on the basis they are racist or fascist. It’s due to add another to the list, the nationalist group Britain First. Student unions affiliated with the NUS are contractually obliged to also no-platform the groups. Yet some students and education officials reject the practice.
“[The BNP] are nasty people, but that doesn’t mean you hide from them and show you’re scared. You challenge their views…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.” Though controversial views aren’t against the law, she says the same rules of free speech shouldn’t apply to people who have committed crimes.
Free speech not the big issue
While free speech issues surrounding students make regular headlines, it is not a big issue for students, says Amatey Doku, the vice president for Higher Education at the National Union of Students (NUS), the biggest group representing UK students.
The 22-year-old Cambridge University graduate
*Amatey on no-platforming*
But students don’t actually care that much about free speech, says Doku, …. – snowflake generation quote
Besides any potential flaw in the new regulatory system, universities are now at risk of over-regulation, says Louis Coiffait, associate editor of Wonkhe, a think-tank and blog about higher education. Government groups getting involved in this area “is a bigger threat to free speech than the odd over-enthusiastic students’ union sabbatical officer,” says Coiffait.
Even so, free speech is a “minor issue” for most students, he adds.
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.
End: Michela Wrong, who has been documenting Africa’s “democratic recession” and corruption there, is concerned about the direction universities are heading in areas of the world with free speech protections. “In the area of the world that I work in, things are getting worse not better. And yet, the student body in the West is getting more and more apparently fragile.”
“If university campuses can’t tolerate free speech, where can?”