Life

What Uni Students Really Think of the Tories' Proposed 'Free Speech Champion'

"It just feels like a massive cover-up for the fact that the government has treated us appallingly during the pandemic."
February 23, 2021, 12:34pm
University students react to free speech champion
Alice and Chloe. All photos courtesy of interviewees

University students are having an exceptionally awful year. Thanks to coronavirus, they’re missing out on the joys of uni life – like catching the eye of your library crush, participating in progressively drunker rounds of Heads Up with pals in halls or, you know, getting nine grand’s worth of in-person lectures that aren’t delivered through Microsoft Teams.  

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Now it seems the government has added one more spicy twist to university life. In February, it announced plans to appoint a “free speech champion” to fight supposed censorship and silencing on campuses. 

But what do students really think? Do they care or are they just counting down the days till they can do shots in a crowded student union bar? Here’s what they told VICE. 

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Ziad. Photo courtesy of interviewee

ZIAD, 20, UCL: ‘TO PROPOSE THAT FREE SPEECH IS UNDER THREAT IS BIZARRE’

I’m from Jordan and one reason why I'm grateful for studying abroad is because of the free speech here. In England, there is much more freedom of speech than anywhere I’ve lived. To propose that free speech is under threat, and that it needs to be regulated within our campuses, is absolutely bizarre to me, because I have lived in a country where there is a great amount of censorship. Censorship, especially in the modern age, is rarely explicit. It almost always begins with a seemingly minor regulatory change such as this one. 

At my uni, not only can I voice my opinions, but I am always positively challenged by others. It’s always respectful and open-minded, even if there is no agreement with my statement. This freedom of speech, and knowing that I won’t be criticized, is what allows me to learn and grow. To take out that inherent part of higher education, and to give more power to the government, is preposterous. 

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Joseph. Photo courtesy of interviewee

JOSEPH, 21, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD: ‘STUDENTS SHOULD BE ABLE TO HAVE A SAY ABOUT WHO COMES INTO OUR CAMPUS’

I think the government is overstepping the mark massively. The university should be a student space, and it should be student-run and lead. As students, we should be able to have a say about who comes into our space. Anyone who is invited to campus to talk should have the blessing of the students. It shouldn’t be a case of having to have people from both left and right who have different viewpoints. A platform is a privilege, not a right. Yes, people should be able to speak their mind freely. But that doesn't necessarily mean you have to give them the platform as a university to do that.

Deplatforming Works

It just feels like a massive cover-up for the fact that the government has treated us appallingly during the pandemic and are starting outrage elsewhere, over issues they know their electorate will agree with, to distract from the mess they’ve left so many of us in. 

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Alice. Photo courtesy of interviewee

ALICE, 22, UNIVERSITY OF LEEDS: ‘A FREE SPEECH CHAMPION MIGHT END UP CREATING A TOXIC ATMOSPHERE’

A free speech champion might just end up creating a very toxic atmosphere where no one feels comfortable speaking. If someone is making a big fuss about making sure that everyone has free speech, you can’t have as much free speech because it will feel like it’s coming from a certain angle and pushing for a certain angle, rather than having an open floor. 

University lecturers are experts in their field. They don’t need to be monitored in the conversations they are making in their classes, they know what they’re talking about. They can be trusted to make sure that all perspectives are discussed. And I don't think that's something that needs to be the government needs to be brought into. 

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Becca. Photo courtesy of interviewee

BECCA, 24, UNIVERSITY OF SUSSEX: ‘NO STUDENTS SHOULD BE SUBJECTED TO DEBATE ABOUT THEIR IDENTITY’

With this, it’s more likely that the line between free speech and hate speech will be blurred.  No platforming exists, not as an attempt to stifle free speech, but to block speakers who are spouting damaging and toxic rhetoric that harms marginalised students. No student should be subjected to speech or debate about their identity. Especially in a space where they are supposed to feel safe. 

They’re stoking a culture war, and they're not thinking about what universities are actually supposed to be,  or who they’re supposed to be for. I think it's actually really a dangerous move. University autonomy is very important. The only people that should be in charge of how universities are run are academics, staff, students and student unions – not the government. 

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Fakhriya. Photo courtesy of interviewee

FAKHRIYA, 25, SOAS: ‘I WORRY ABOUT HOW NEUTRAL THEY WILL BE’

If an individual is now going to be put on our campuses up and down the country, I worry about how neutral these free speech champions will be. Any strategies to ensure that free speech is maintained within the campus should come organically from the university itself. It would align more with the students and the overall body of the institution if it’s not coming from the top down. It seems like the government wants to covertly impose upon universities their ideas of what free speech should look like. 

While freedom of speech is very important, I think that there are more pressing matters at hand. Especially amid this pandemic, where a lot of university students have expressed that the government hasn’t really adequately taken care of us during this time. 

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Sayali. Photo courtesy of interviewee

SAYALI, 21, KING’S COLLEGE LONDON: ‘UNIVERSITIES ARE MEANT TO BE A SAFE SPACE’

They're acting as if free speech in universities is under attack, when we've got loads of different societies who have their own thoughts and beliefs that are different. If you put one specific person or a few people in charge of defining free speech, free speech doesn't really exist at that point anymore.

Furthermore, our student union officers and student reps are already there to ensure that free speech is maintained. Universities are meant to be safe space where we can learn about new things and new ideologies. I don’t think the government should be stepping in. 

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Johnny. Photo courtesy of interviewee

JOHNNY, 20, UNIVERSITY OF WARWICK: ‘MOST PEOPLE ARE JUST TRYING TO GET ON WITH THEIR DEGREE’

In terms of no platforming or blocking speakers from coming – that’s not something I've experienced, and I’ve been heavily involved in managing external speakers in societies and political groups at uni. I don't get how this free speech discussion can be more important than what's happening with COVID.

It is important that people are able to express themselves freely and can listen to opinions they disagree with – that's what university’s all about. But their policy direction right now isn't clear, in terms of how exactly it will affect uni life.

In any case, you've only got a small percentage of students that actually get involved in debates, protests and policy disagreements. Most people are just trying to get on with their degree and don't really care about what's happening.

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Chloe. Photo courtesy of interviewee

CHLOE, 25, UCL: ‘WHY IS THIS THE PRIORITY?’

I find it so confusing that they’re pushing this now especially since no one's at university right now. Most of us are either studying from home and we're not able to do events on campus anyway.

Why is this the priority in our current environment? Where literally, you wake up every day and you hear about people dying from coronavirus. And particularly for students, there are so many other issues, such as the rent strikes, or the increased mental health strain that students are experiencing from isolating.