The Blog

Illegitimate Student Unions Must Not Ban Talk on the Basis of Student Welfare

Students are about to step into the outside world where they won't be afforded the protections of a cosy student union. Universities should prepare students from this, rather than pretend they'll never graduate beyond the university bubble.

Student officers at student unions are giving themselves a reputation for restricting free speech. Most recently, a former UCL student was stopped from speaking at UCL on his experiences of fighting ISIS. The student activities officer Asad Khan justified the decision on safety concerns, concerns that the talk might encourage other students to fight ISIS and not wanting the Union to be seen to be taking sides. Toke Dahler, the head of the Leeds University student union, was on Newsnight to defend the restriction of free speech at universities by student officers, saying that "not in my union" would there be unacceptable talks or debates.

The audacity of Dahler to call Leeds Student Union his own, given that just 8% of the student body voted for him (2,520 votes out of a student body electorate of 31,000) underscores the excessive power student unions have in dictating what events take place at universities. At Leeds University, as with many other universities, societies need the approval of the student union before a talk can be held. Why does every student-led event have to be processed by a student union? Most students are wholly indifferent to them and their student officers. Elections for student unions garner meek turnouts; only one university- St Andrews- has ever managed a turnout of over 50%. Whether students want to host a talk on fighting ISIS or a talk on the history of marshmallows, it's not within the legitimate remit of the unions to decide if they take place. The sheer arrogance of student officers to dictate what ideas can and can't be heard at a university, to curtain the educational experiences of students on flimsy and often farcical grounds, is reprehensible. Just as John Stuart Mill described suppressing the expression of an opinion as "robbing the human race", so the banning of certain speakers robs students of the opportunity to listen, learn and be challenged.

Part of the reason why officers ban talks is because of concerns about student welfare or safety. A debate on abortion at Oxford last year was banned on the basis of the potential upset caused by two men debating the issue without women. It should be noted that 'bottom up' petitions have similar justifications for stopping talks, such as the mooted danger behind letting Germain Greer talk at Cardiff because of her views on Transgender women. The reason behind banning talks often seems to arise from compassionate motivations and a genuine concern for the welfare of students, as opposed to the rather brazen claim of the commentator Brendan O'Neill that the banned talk on fighting ISIS was "censorship designed to protect the Islamic State." A greater concern with the mental state of students is overdue. For too long universities have neglected their duties of care to students, despite the mass of evidence which points to a mental health crisis in universities. In September, the Higher Education Funding Council For England provided the latest proof in highlighting the rapid and dramatic increase in the amount of students requesting counselling.

But banning talks on the basis of protecting student welfare constitutes a very narrow understanding of student wellbeing. Being offended might be unpleasant. Hearing the ideas of those you disagree, or knowing that they are being given a platform, might make you angry. But why is such hurt conceived as intrinsically damaging? Hearing ideas that challenge can lead to personal development. One can see things in a new light, or even change opinion. The context of a university facilitates the enriching experience of keeping an open mind, living up to John Keats's view that to "strengthen one's intellect is to make up one's mind about nothing-to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts."

Within reason, the capacity to be hurt, but not let it inflict long term suffering, is surely a valuable trait of resilience for young people to aspire to. Leeds's Toke Dahler said that since students get traumatised by the outside world, a student union must be a 'safe space'. But students are about to step into the outside world where they won't be afforded the protections of a cosy student union. Universities should prepare students from this, rather than pretend they'll never graduate beyond the university bubble.

The recent remembrance commemorations put into perspective the struggles that students of bygone generations faced, especially those who served in the First World War and Second World War. Such wars wreaked untold death and misery on those young people who served. People my age might have shared my sheepishness when comparing those struggles to the relatively sheltered existence young people face today. But my sheepishness also made me appreciate what I and many other young people and students know-that when we are challenged, when we face adversity, we improve ourselves and ultimately become stronger people, more able to deal with future challenges. In banning certain talks, student officers not only indulge in overreach of their authority. Their misguided understanding of welfare undermines the educational and personal development of students.