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.

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