I feel like I’ve been waiting to wade into this debate for months, and I’m finally ready. Let’s talk about Students’ Unions and freedom of speech.
Except let’s not. After all, everyone else has had their go. The most recent article I’ve read is this one, from the Guardian, and it got me thinking about my actual views on the matter, which are thusly.
- Freedom of speech is important. People died for our right to it, and there are hundreds of thousands of places in the world where it’s still curtailed.
- Students are people, and people can be hurt.
- Universities are places of learning and should be starting those difficult conversations, and encouraging challenging debate (my views on the education system aside)
Right, so these things keep fighting against each other. Students are humans, so they shouldn’t be subjected to situations which feel threatening to certain humans. But they’ve gone to university to learn, and where else will they be exposed to these views? And where better to encourage free discourse, in a sphere of learning and growth.
Let’s just look at the word “union” for a second. A google-define (because I don’t have a paper dictionary to hand, sue me) gives the following definition:
- the action of joining together or the fact of being joined together, especially in a political context
- a society or association formed by people with a common interest or purpose
Now. I wasn’t born yesterday. I know that we think of trade unions as empowering movements of positive social change (or maybe an irritating itch in the side of the status quo), and Students’ Unions used to be the home of debate, free thinking, and general sticking-it-to-the-man. But let’s get real, times have changed.
There’s a consistent rhetoric with the anti no-platform brigade. They criticise SUs for creating a nanny state and reducing the exposure of students to radical thought. Seriously though? I have the internet. I’m on it now. The people (quite rightly, in many ways) actively reducing exposure to radical thought, are the government. Many universities are trying to find ways around that, because in the modern world, engagement with radical and broad-ranging thought is key to degree-level discourse. Yes, there are institutions which are falling down, but it is the fundamental role of universities now to encourage freedom of thought and speech.
Where does that leave SUs? No longer the necessary platform for reform and protest, SUs are free to take on a new (and much-needed, in the current student landscape) position as the provider of a support system. With ever-rising fees and ever decreasing job prospects, students are in need of a place they can go for advice, to maintain their personal welfare, and to find a group of people with a common purpose. And they have a right to consider that space “safe”.
It is pertinent to mention, at this point, that my argument covers SUs as individual organisations, and I do understand the argument as it relates to the National Union of Students. Some of their broadcast views do seem to err in favour of preventing an informative and constructive debate. However, every article that has touched on this subject of late has mentioned “banning” certain things, or not allowing speakers into union buildings. That argument is misguided because it ignores the new value of the SU as an institution. No longer do we need a place to vent our revolutionary angst – universities are increasingly better at being a platform for that discourse – but what we do badly need, in the absence of relevant action from the government, are places to feel safe and supported. Why shouldn’t that place be the Students’ Union?