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Recentring Student Voices in the Campus ‘Free Speech Crisis’

I’ve been a university student for almost four years. Throughout my undergraduate degree, I have been a contributor, News and Comments Editor, and Editor-in-Chief of my university’s student magazine. Friends and family ask me what the toughest part of running a magazine is, and they often suggest that it must be a nightmare to write ‘woke’ articles that don’t offend anyone at university.

You’d think I’d be used to these comments after years of writing, commissioning, and editing hundreds of articles, but it still genuinely worries me that the public perceives universities to be institutions that are stifling freedom of speech.

Of course, who could blame them for believing that, when the government’s ‘Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill’ is in its final stages, and commentators in the media are claiming that everything from preferred pronouns to decolonising the curriculum is threatening free speech. I think the shock I feel every time I’m asked this question is due to my concern that our politicians and media are selling a false narrative about the realities of freedom of expression at university. This narrative is one that student voices have been left out of for far too long.

The new Freedom of Speech Bill was proposed in 2021 after a report claimed that universities are under attack as ‘no-platforming’ and ‘cancel culture’ are ruining the higher education system. However, the Taking the Debate Forward 2021 report showed from 2019-20 just 0.06% of speakers were denied access to give talks at universities, which hardly suggests any sort of crisis.

The government is hoping to appoint a ‘Free Speech Champion’ in the Office for Students to regulate speech at universities and impose sanctions on institutions that don’t uphold freedom of expression. I find this policy highly frustrating. Universities are independent bodies, so it should be their right to decide who does or doesn’t get to speak on campus. Also, the government overriding an institution’s decision to ‘no-platform’ individuals limits a university’s free speech, which is the opposite outcome of what they’ve claimed that they want to achieve.

Whenever someone says to me “well you can’t say anything anymore without someone getting offended”, I always wonder what views they feel they can’t share in 2023. From personal experience as a Politics student, I can tell you that there are plenty of people sharing Conservative views on the economy in my seminars, there are a whole host of students who agree with British foreign intervention overseas, and I’ve had many debates about whether we should have an NHS or welfare state at all. So, if it isn’t right-wing politics that are under attack on campus, what views are?

The views under attack are the views that degrade other people’s identities. Homophobic, racist, transphobic, ableist and sexist views are deemed to be unacceptable at university and in wider society, and I don’t believe this to be an issue. Personally, as an Editor of a magazine that represents the diverse views and identities of students, I would not be inclined to publish an article that attacks the rights of transgender people’s legal existence or regurgitates Andrew Tate’s views on women. I believe that every person has the right to hold those views if they so desire, but we must create a welcoming student community by refusing to tolerate intolerance towards other students.

Conservative peer Lord Wei has proposed that the government create a ‘woke test’ in which students who can prove they have “tolerance of other viewpoints, lateral thinking, and critical thinking” are rewarded with money to combat ‘woke indoctrination’ at university. Again, the government are trying to protect free speech at universities by dictating which views are and aren’t acceptable. There are a variety of reasons why students may not be inclined to vote Conservative. Obviously, there’s the issue of the global pandemic, in which the government curbed students’ freedoms, denying them years of their youth, all while they held secret parties. There’s also the cost-of-living crisis that has left young people choosing between whether they heat their homes or save money for a food shop. Lastly, there are 18 proposed days of UCU strikes that the government are not managing, instead, they’re attempting to ban other sectors from striking.

I feel there are a fair number of reasons why young people may not be inclined to vote Conservative, and they aren’t related to universities creating  ‘Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati’ cults on campus. Therefore, Lord Wei need look no further than at the appalling state of our country to understand youth voting behaviour.

The reality is, over 65% of students in the UK believe that their higher education institution adequately protects and promotes free speech, and their voices are being ignored. We do need to address the 35% of students who disagree with this statement by creating policies that strike a balance between free speech and safety on campus. However, to suggest that there is in any way a ‘crisis’ of free speech is not just insulting to students like myself, who aim to champion free expression on campus, but it is also insulting to a generation of young people who have been continually let down by the UK government for as long as they can remember. 

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