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Opinion | The Government is portraying students as illiberal proponents of cancel culture for their own benefit

With a tide of vibrant young people swarming into higher education, university is no longer an elitist arena where knowledge is for the few.

By Nadja Lovadinov, Geography, Third Year

With a tide of vibrant young people swarming into higher education, university is no longer an elitist arena where knowledge is for the few.  ‘Academic freedoms’ – the boundaries detailing which ideas we can and cannot discuss, research and debate – are no longer defined by a small group of privileged academics.

Our campus is a thrilling, politically charged and empowering arena of dynamic debate, thanks to a thriving culture of free speech. Yet the Government’s fear-mongering narrative seeks to undermine this liberal environment, resorting to myth-making and homogenising students as agents of the Thought Police.

Amid the controversial debate regarding the protection of academic freedoms and freedoms of speech, universities have become a political playground, targeted by the new Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which implies that rational scholarship has been replaced by cheap forms of inept political activism.

The Bill extends universities’ obligation to uphold freedom of speech. It ensures legal protection of speakers, academics and student groups and would allow speakers to sue for compensation if they have been ‘de-platformed.’

Whilst this seems great for universities as their value lies in the academic, objective search for truth, the Bill in fact mobilises politicians to interfere with matters that should be internal to the university, and further belittles and demeans the student population.

There is no systemic problem of 'Silencing and censoring' at UK universities

The former education secretary Gavin Williamson noted the ‘Chilling effect’ on university campuses of the ‘Unacceptable silencing and censoring’ that’s crippling higher education. The government’s narrative is one of an out of control ‘cancel culture’ (a modern McCarthyism), spreading across UK universities.

This apparent revolution is being led by left-wing mobs dividing and multiplying, infecting freedom of speech. Yet the tumour killing higher education is the overblown mainstream right-leaning media.

There is no systematic problem of ‘Silencing and censoring’ at UK universities. As the Office for Students figures show, only 94 of 43,337 events or speaker requests were rejected in the academic year 2019-20. Williamson’s comments are widely exaggerated.

Apparently, the Orwellian student Thought Police - voting lecturers out like a game of ‘no likey no lightey’ - are roaming UK campuses. Beware: they look just like everyone else in the intimidating form of flared trousers, tote bags and North Face puffers. You might find them loitering suspiciously outside the ASS or aggressively ‘VOI-ing’ down Park Street.

Rather than blaming the student community, we need to recognise that the liberal stance of students and academics in British universities is being pitted against government interests and neoliberal think tanks.

For instance, for the Adam Smith Institute (ASI), left-leaning academics are a huge problem to the integrity of higher education. Indeed, the University and College Union deemed the ASI opinions as a ‘Reds-under-the-beds scare story from a right-wing think tank.’

Mass media coverage that students are picking lecturers off like flies is false

Obviously then, the crackdown on freedom of speech has become a political culture war. The government’s narrative around freedom of speech in University campuses is not at all about protecting academic freedoms, it is about capitalising on culture divides and polarising people so far that we see the ‘other side’ as coming from a different planet.

Or, it is about deriding lefty students, who are already unlikely to vote conservative, to shore up support amongst their older, more traditional supporters by ostensibly championing freedom of speech and conservative values.

Let’s take a look at two cases in which students have been involved in restricting freedoms of speech. The cases of Professor David Miller at the University of Bristol and Professor Kathleen Stock at the University of Sussex, illustrate the media’s clear misleading narrative.

Before the recent student calls for the removal of Kathleen Stock, a gender-critical feminist, a letter was signed by an astounding 600 academics collectively describing her as transphobic and objecting to her receiving an OBE.

Similarly, more than 100 politicians called for action over David Miller’s comments on Israel. Political pressure cumulated in David Miller’s termination from his position at the University.

That such a number of academics and politicians agree with student opinion on these matters shows that students are far from oppressive, nor hellbent on restricting free speech.

This contrasts with media portrayals of the student population. The Mail Online, for example, characterised student protesters as a ‘Masked mob’, with other academics branding them ’Bullies’.

Mass media coverage that students are picking lecturers off like flies is false. There are bigger agents at play changing the dynamics of higher education. Clearly, the question we should be asking is not ‘What kind of future does a University have where intimidation determines what is said or taught?’ but rather, ‘What kind of future do Universities have when they are cast as a problem by our government?’.

Featured Image: Marcus Winkler

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