Issues & Debates

Are We Safe In Our Safe Places?

An informative look at the increasing culture of political correctness at our universities, and whether this bodes well for the future of free speech in education.

For centuries, universities have provided the ultimate lever for education to the citizens of a nation. For many years in the UK, the right of an ordinary man or woman to attend university entailed no cost, and the Government paid for a student’s admission. While that is no longer of course the case, universities remain one of the most steadfast ways of social progress in the United Kingdom.

Yet, in recent years, an argument over free speech and the role of educational institutions to “protect” students from unpalatable views has thrust universities into the centre of political debate. The so called “safe-spaces” argument, a term which originated in the US, has questioned the age old doctrine of iron guarded free speech at places of learning.

A survey by the online magazine Spiked revealed that a shocking 90% of British universities have restricted free speech at some stage, and a further 60% have “severely” restricted free speech. These figures are an increase year on year from 2015 and reveal a trend of almost universal anti free speech measures by British Universities.

So, why exactly is this happening? Many reasons of course have their part to play, but one particular body that tends to receive much of the blame is the NUS, or National Union of Students. Since her election in April of 2016, the NUS’s new head Malia Bouattia has faced repeated controversy of a wide range of issues, including her defence of “safe spaces” and no platforming; the practice of denying speakers a platform to spread their views.

Bouattia has stated that educational establishments should be “safe spaces in which to debate and in which to discuss ideas”. This has been a recurrent theme within NUS circles and signs are that the practice has spread to educational establishments themselves too. While the NUS has long supported this policy, Universities now are the primary enforcers of safe space policy and seem eager to back up the public statements of the NUS and its leader.

As any student will tell you, universities have always been a place for debate and political argument. As centres of educational exchange, there is nothing inherently wrong with this. However, the actions of universities and the NUS risk threatening the very lifeblood of what a University is supposed to be, a free exchange of ideas and information.

Speakers banned from University include Germaine Greer, Eric Pickles and several politicians associated with UKIP. This jars against a long standing British value of allowing free speech, regardless of whether a person agrees or disagrees with the speaker. The argument of “protecting” students from views they disagree with is up for debate, as surely both sides of the political spectrum should be allowed to have a say no matter which side the viewer takes.

Universities have long accepted debates with controversy, as it is that which sustains a free and open society. Even Oswald Mosely, the wartime fascist leader, spoke at several universities after the war in several debates.

The suppression of free speech is a worrying trend to say the least, and it does not end there either. Prime Minister Theresa May has hit out at universities for stifling free speech on campus, saying it hurts the development of debate and ideas. One must certainly note however that in the halls of NUS head office, a Conservative Prime Minister will most likely be ignored.

Sussex University recently came under fire for hosting a workshop on “how to deal with right wing attitudes and politics in the classroom”. This culture at the nation’s top academic institutions, that are universities, is becoming a worrying anti-democratic force that threatens the intellectual growth of students. Much less than the immediate effect of no platforming someone who has differing views to a university, other long term issues arise.

Universities are institutions that have little or no democratic accountability. Thus, the systematic restrictions of political and social thought that do not conform to their standards are difficult to remedy.

It is easy to ponder that if University heads were elected in the same way that members of parliaments were, restrictive anti-free speech policies would not be implemented in the same way. Academics and institutions including the NUS are only allowed to clamp down on free speech because they are not accountable to the general public.

Of course, the NUS has elections, however, at the height of such an institution only the most politically active and determined officials tend to vote in the election. The NUS therefore does in no way represent all of the students of the United Kingdom, the majority of whom have little to no involvement with the body.

All in all, the worrying trend of anti-free speech moves by educational establishments and the NUS looks set to continue. One would certainly hope however, that action is taken and more is done to prevent a minority of extremist individuals souring the education of hundreds of thousands.