I started university when I was 24, almost 25. Having left school at 15 with no qualifications, I knew nothing about education and wasn't really sure what to expect, but I had expected to be challenged. Not just academically, but politically. I had this notion - fuelled, no doubt, by various on-screen depictions of the political fervour of uni campuses of yore - that university was this feisty environment populated by politically passionate folk in whacky clothes, where radical debate and experimentation were high on the agenda.
What it turned out to be, however, was a place of wet sensitivity where girls - and boys - in Ugg(ly) boots experimented with baking. To put it frankly, after years of pining for higher-education my fellow students were boring and the only controversial debate that took place was about which canteen to buy lunch from.
It didn't surprise me then, to see my university, Bath Spa, in the red-zone in Spiked magazine's Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR). Spiked examined the policies and actions of British universities and students' unions, ranking them on their commitment to free speech using a traffic-light system: red for universities or unions that have banned and actively censored ideas on campus, amber for "chilled free speech through intervention", and green for institutes that have a hands-off approach.
Just to preempt any snarky comments about 'rubbishy' universities, let me point out that Oxford was red too, and Cambridge amber. In fact, only one in five universities were ranked as green, meaning that they embrace an open approach to free speech, whereas more than double that figure were ranked as red. In red universities, the idea of "safe space" is deemed more important than freedom of speech.
Germaine Greer has found herself falling short of safe space policy, again, as a recent petition called for her to be banned from a women's rights lecture at Cardiff University because of her views on transgender women. It's the latest in a string of incidents banning outspoken people with controversial views from events. In February, comedian Kate Smurthwaite also ran into trouble at Goldsmiths University when her show, Lefty Cockwomble - which, ironically, was about free speech - was cancelled. Why? Because Smurthwaite believes in the Nordic model of legislation on sex work, which criminalises buying rather than selling sex. Goldsmiths' feminist society is, however, "'for' [the full legalisation of] sex working". Her show had nothing to do with prostitution.
The theory of safe space is that people of all identities and backgrounds have the freedom to express themselves in an environment that is tolerant - great. However, the current, rigorous enforcement of the concept is beginning to sound a lot like censorship. A set of 'if you haven't got anything nice to say, don't say anything at all' rules, it's as though the Facebook generation can't handle the analogue world unless it meets their community standards.
I don't agree with Greer's view that trans women are "not women", and I don't think that all opinions deserve a platform. I do believe, however, that in real life, you can't just block people you don't get on with. There is no 'hide this content' button. There is no network of sky-geeks, ready to remove material that violates life's code of conduct. Learning to communicate with people who hold different views from your own is one of life's biggest lessons and one that university plays a vital role in. It is there, after all, to prepare you for the world, not shield you from it.
It's good to see students, who are increasingly known for their apathy, show some guts in their refusal to have their views challenged, at least. Is shying away from real debate the new radical though, or is it just a symptom of a world that seeks to shut down opinions that differ from mainstream, community approved thought?
It seems to me that building a community of like-minded people might give students the freedom of tolerance, but it doesn't necessarily teach them to tolerate. Little value is placed, for instance, in the views of students that don't match the ideal - what about their safe space? Just like Facebook, increasingly at universities you are only really expected to 'like', agree, or shut up. No wonder my peers preferred baking.Suggest a correction