What is the most damaging and pernicious phenomenon currently infiltrating British higher education? For many, it is 'lad culture' - the pervasive 'scourge' of university bars across the country. For others, it is sexism - widespread, deplorable, and often blamed on the aforementioned 'lads'. For me, it is the illiberalism of students' unions.
I have written before about my frustration with student politicians' partiality for boycotts and bans, and the trend shows no signs of stopping soon. To avoid paraphrasing myself, here is a brief glimpse at some of the absurd policies this nation's union officials have implemented:
In the past, sabbatical officers have boycotted Nestlé products, removed The Sun from their union shops, and issued decrees claiming that the whole university stands in solidarity with Palestine. More recently, Birmingham University's Student Guild has banned people in certain fancy dress costumes from their bar, almost 20 unions have banned Robin Thicke's popular song 'Blurred Lines', and Kent Union has tried to ban BAE from promoting their graduate job opportunities.
This is not to mention the various newspapers, atheist groups and libertarian societies which have had their wings clipped by the union censors; nor the fact that these officials are invariably elected by a pitiful proportion of the student body, and lack any mandate for such actions; nor the most dangerous weapon in their anti-freedom arsenal: the NUS's 'No Platform' policy.
Student politicians have always been profoundly disconnected from those they serve, and it is in moments of illiberalism and censorship when this disconnect is most sharply felt. By banning and boycotting those things deemed 'unacceptable', students' unions show their deep lack of trust in the wider student population. It is patronising and wrong to believe that exposure to potentially subversive ideas will see students adopt them unthinkingly. We must be able to 'think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable'. And we must fight for our right to do so.
Thankfully, the anti-censorship cause has started to gain popular momentum. The Tab - an old rival in my day's at Durham's broadsheet - has taken steps in its franchises across the country to rail against heavy-handed unions, and has recently hosted an article by Spiked assistant editor, Tom Slater, entitled 'Down with campus censorship'. In the piece, he introduces Spiked's new campaign to break up the illiberal dominance of student politics, and reintroduce the long-forgotten concept of free speech to union corridors. He puts it better than I:
These bans are always called for in the name of radicalism, of pushing for a more tolerant and progressive society. The truth is that censorship is a bulwark to radical change. It hides bigotry from view, it buries students' heads in the sand and it shuts down the truly free and open debate necessary to uproot, debate and demolish the things in society we seek to overturn.
This is a desperately welcome campaign for pro-free speech bigots like me. And if you want to join the fight, Spiked have helpfully put together a pamphlet aimed at taking down 'No Platform', with a 5-point plan:
- Build support from across a range of student societies, political groups and individual students; organise discussions and debates about the importance of free speech on campus.
- Write for student newspapers, local papers and websites; start a blog of your own and make full use of social media to make your case against No Platform.
- Enlist the support of members of your student union or student council, learn how the system works and call a referendum on No Platform.
- Canvas, campaign, argue and debate. Student unions are quite proud of their censorious No Platform polices and are unlikely to give them up without a fight.
- Talk to everyone. Given how alienated student unions tend to be from students nowadays, many students may be unaware of No Platform and the contempt in which it holds them. Make your case to them. It affects you all.
Nigel Farage can keep his 'people's army'; we'll have the students' army. And it's a very inclusive one. You can be a raving socialist or a frothing-at-the-mouth Tory. Come one, come all - if you believe in freedom of speech, help us fight against censorship.