There is a sustained debate in academia about the limit of free expression on campuses. This debate has gained momentum more recently, within the last few days the government has launched their 'educate against hate' website, advancing their controversial prevent strategy, and Nicola Dandridge CBE, Chief Executive of Universities UK, recently commented that
"They [universities] must continue to be places where difficult topics are discussed and where people, however controversial their views, should be allowed to speak within the law."
For me the debate about whether the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford should be removed encapsulates the crux of the debate and whilst many recognise that there are things to be commended in the arguments made on both sides I find myself agreeing with both sides, at the same time.
Lord Patten, Chancellor of Oxford University, chortled on Radio 4's today programme when asked if Universities should be 'safe places'. He argued that Universities should be places where people are exposed to different ideas, challenged and listened to. In contrast campaigners for the removal of the statue, campaigning using the hashtag #RhodesMustFall, argue that Oxford is institutionally and structurally racist and should distance itself from its historic links with imperialism, and on 20 January it was they who won the Oxford Union debate on the issue.
Lord Patten is correct, in fact I would go further and argue that universities should be places where people are not only challenged but sometimes offended, they should be exciting and dangerous places full of rigorous debate. The limits of free expression should be determined by the rules of defamation and the prohibition on inciting people to go and do harm. But this is only what I think universities should be - the claim is normative. The structural inequalities that the #RhodesMustFall campaigners cite are real - there is only one Black senior Professor in the whole of Oxford University and nationally only 0.49% of Professors are Black females. Their claim is descriptive, a claim about what Oxford is like, as opposed to normative, a claim about what Oxford should be like.
This is where I find myself agreeing with all sides at once. Lord Patten's normative claim is strong, universities should be places where all voices are heard, everyone should be given a platform with very few restrictions. However, universities are rightly described as places where only some have a voice and the most marginalised in society are absent, so by giving a platform to those who have a voice you are not encouraging the free exchange of ideas, rather you are allowing the dominant ideology to persist unchallenged and this ideology has historically disadvantaged the interests of women and Black and minority ethnic communities.
This is why the government's prevent strategy should be challenged and why the University and Colleges Union, which represents lecturers, and the National Union of Students, amongst others, are critical of a policy which they view as limiting free expression and requiring lecturers to spy on their students.
The prevent strategy is premised on an insulting depiction of the student body, which neither side in the #RhodesMustFall debate subscribe to, as passive and unquestioning youngsters vulnerable to dangerous ideas. This depiction justifies denying them access to certain knowledge for 'their own good'. Students however are engaged, critical adults who are capable of analysing and assessing a range of opinions, if they need protecting at all we can do it best by arming them with the critical skills to evaluate and challenge dangerous ideas. I look forward to the utopia in which universities are dangerous places, but first the institutional and structural inequalities need remedying.