There is something of a free speech crisis in British universities. The propensity to ban the discussion or promotion of ideas which some students might oppose or find offensive has led to the phenomena of no-platforming, safe spaces and other means of exclusion.
The fragility and delicacy of some students, their shameless intolerance, have now become a source of fun for their older compatriots, who often refer to them as “snowflakes”.
The situation might be risible were it not so grave, given that universities are institutions charged with preparing talented young people for vital roles in society, including leadership.
Indeed, the Government has already intervened in an attempt to avert the development of what might have resulted in tragedy as crucial democratic rights are gradually eroded. Last year, it imposed a duty on all universities to demonstrate to the Office for Students (the regulator for higher education) how they will uphold freedom of speech.
Sir Michael Barber, chairman of the OfS, said he wanted to see from universities “the widest possible definition of free speech”.
“We will never seek to limit freedom of speech within the law, and we will always use our powers to promote rather than restrict it,” he said. “Education and scholarship are advanced through dialogue and debate.
“Universities are places where people can encounter challenging and, at times, uncomfortable ideas, sometimes for the first time. This is something which we should encourage, rather than [something we should] seek to protect students from.”
This policy was welcomed by religious and pro-life groups in particular. Small wonder. In the past decade universities have, for example, excluded Jewish groups (on the grounds that they might support Israel), banned Bibles in halls of residence because they were insufficiently multicultural, and, on numerous occasions, denied the right of association to pro-life students.
Life, the pro-life pregnancy counselling charity, was even excluded from freshers’ fairs at Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester, Roehampton, Northampton and Warwick mere weeks after government policy on free speech came into effect.
This prompted the charity to complain to the OfS, which agreed that Life should be permitted to “publicise its work and services to students”. The Office said, however, that it could not actively intervene because its regulatory powers did not extend to the students’ unions and associations barring such activity.
The universities minister, too, declared himself helpless when it came to directing activities of the unions – even when they suppressed free speech. Student bodies belonging to the universities may, however, be open to regulation. Unions must also abide by equality and human rights laws.
This was tested earlier in 2019 when Glasgow Students for Life was denied affiliation to the university’s Students’ Representative Council and its corresponding benefits of the use of premises and a booth at the freshers’ fair.
The students’ council had claimed it would be contrary to its ethos to endorse “a society which calls for limited rights for women”. It backed down when the pro-life group threatened legal action, arguing that it had a right to the same privileges enjoyed by pro-abortion groups at the university.
The group had been supported by ADF International, a faith-based legal advocacy organisation.
Laurence Wilkinson, legal counsel for ADF, said: “Freedom of speech is the foundation of every free and democratic society. Of all places, a university is where students should be free to debate and explore ideas, even those with which we may disagree.
“It simply does not work when a students’ body picks sides and censors the one with which it disagrees.”
Other university groups are now also being challenged over their intolerance, with the latest case involving a complaint by Aberdeen Life Ethics Society against the Aberdeen University students’ association.
The pro-life group was denied affiliate status in October because the students’ association had a pro-abortion position. It is now mounting a legal challenge to its exclusion, on the grounds of discrimination.
Alex Mason, a doctoral student and founder of the society, told The Tab website it should be normal for universities to “foster free debate and discussion over important ethical issues like abortion. Unfortunately, there is a lot of social pressure on young people to conform to the pro-abortion viewpoint. For many of us, our pro-life beliefs were forged from our understanding of gestational science, as well as our Christian faith, and the ability to express these beliefs must be protected.”
Aberdeen University (pictured), meanwhile, is making clear that it does not oppose membership of the pro-life group in the students’ association. “The university is an inclusive community and recognises different beliefs, values and cultures,” said a spokesman.
The two cases may suggest that universities are at last seeing sense in challenging the “snowflake” culture, even if their motivations are purely practical in origin. It would be to their benefit and that of the country if students eventually followed suit.