Are students’ unions backing off the hard questions?

Battle of Ideas debate asks if policies of “no-platforming” make campuses ‘homogeneous zones of head-nodding’

October 23, 2014

Universities are at risk of becoming “homogeneous zones of head-nodding” as students’ unions adopt “safe space” and “no-platform” policies that ban certain speakers.

Such was the argument of Tom Bailey, a recent graduate of University College London, speaking in a debate titled “Cotton-wool Campus?” at the Battle of Ideas festival – where Times Higher Education was media partner – on 18 October. Such initiatives, he continued, addressed issues of “discomfort, not safety, which people don’t need to be protected from” and reflected “a more inward-looking trend in student politics”.

Columnist and blogger Harriet Williamson responded that “complete freedom to say and do as we like, individually, can prevent others from feeling safe”. Addressing the claim that “young women are now more ‘resilient’ and do not need to be ‘protected’ from the [laddish] behaviour of male students”, she asked: “Do we tell people of colour that they should be ‘resilient’ enough to deal with racist jokes and people making monkey noises?”

For Ellamay Russell, a postgraduate student at the University of Sussex, “no-platforming” was based on the premise that “you can have a debate about racism without a racist on the panel” – but that was “not a debate” and revealed “a disbelief” in students’ ability to make their own decisions.

Michael Segalov, a communications officer at the University of Sussex Students’ Union, responded that such policies helped to provide balance in an “unequal society”. As an extension of legislation against racism and sexism, he said, far from infantilising students, they empowered them.

But Mr Bailey queried how “banning a racist speaker will improve the level of racism in society or the proportion of black professors”, while Ms Russell said that she “believed in the same risks for everybody and therefore the same opportunities. Making universities safe spaces is patronising and boring.”

A speaker from the floor noted that when trying to organise a debate on Israel/ Palestine, he was told that he had to check with unions and university authorities about which speakers might cause offence. The result was that the event never took place.

matthew.reisz@tesglobal.com

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Most Commented

Doctoral study can seem like a 24-7 endeavour, but don't ignore these other opportunities, advise Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O'Gorman

Matthew Brazier illustration (9 February 2017)

How do you defeat Nazis and liars? Focus on the people in earshot, says eminent Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt

Laurel and Hardy sawing a plank of wood

Working with other academics can be tricky so follow some key rules, say Kevin O'Gorman and Robert MacIntosh

Improvement, performance, rankings, success

Phil Baty sets out why the World University Rankings are here to stay – and why that's a good thing

Warwick vice-chancellor Stuart Croft on why his university reluctantly joined the ‘flawed’ teaching excellence framework