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23 March 2022

There’s a problem with university culture – but it isn’t the students

Do the grown-ups decrying today’s students really believe they never did anything when they were young that would have caused their parents to turn purple with indignation?

By Rachel Cunliffe

In my first week at university I got so drunk I passed out in the college bar and a member of the student union spent the night on my floor to make sure I was OK. It’s not a night I’m particularly proud of. I had gone to a freshers’ week event hosted by the college men’s drinking society and been encouraged to drink far more than was good for me – so far, so normal. But a week later, I was called in to see the pastoral team. They were very concerned about what had happened and were determined to use my ill-advised inebriation to get the drinking society shut down. After half an hour of trying to get me to file a report saying I’d been pressured and coerced into getting intoxicated, I snapped. “I’m very sorry,” I said, “I hadn’t realised I was the first student at this university ever to have gotten drunk.” 

I mention this not because I’m eager to relive that messy and humiliating night, but as a reminder that sometimes students do stupid things – and adults sometimes forget this. This is a fundamental part of growing up – the hope is that enough damage is done for people to learn from their foolishness (don’t drink vodka on an empty stomach) without there being long-term consequences. University years are a time to take inappropriate substances, sleep with inappropriate people, and make inappropriate decisions that seem perfectly logical at the time but scandalise adults in the vicinity – as though those adults never did anything controversial when they were young. 

If it’s not drugs and sex, it’ll be signing up to radical political projects with an earnestness that makes perfect sense within the university ecosystem but seems utterly incomprehensible to those who have outgrown it. As social norms shift, so do the causes, but mocking student activism is such a cliché it’s been a well-used trope for at least half a century. Simon Raven had a character so obsessed with socialism she cries out the names of Marxist philosophers during sexual climax, and in the TV adaptation of Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue a female student campaigning against male violence calls for the end of sex and mandatory vasectomies for all men.

In short, it is the normal state of affairs for students to have opinions that make adults roll their eyes in despair. What isn’t normal is how upset adults have been getting about it. 

The culture wars are playing out on university campuses throughout the land. The issue of “cancel culture” at universities is apparently so serious it requires the UK government to intervene, with a bill making it a legal requirement for universities to “promote freedom of speech on campus”. This is the government that is simultaneously trying to push through a different bill that would require online platforms to remove legal content that some people disapprove of – but apparently special rules should apply to the nation’s 2.66 million students. If some of them decide to, for example, take down a portrait of the Queen in their common room, that is a misstep so heinous the education secretary must step in to condemn it. 

There is a genuine issue if academics and students don’t feel they have a safe environment to express views that go beyond the mainstream. At a time when university contracts are often short term and insecure, it should concern everyone that social media storms can be the decider as to whether or not someone is offered a job. But strangely that doesn’t seem to be the issue garnering the attention. The most intense handwringing is more likely to be devoted to Rod Liddle’s hurt feelings after students at Durham who had paid to attend a dinner they didn’t know he was booked to speak at walked out. Apparently the right not to listen to sexist jokes doesn’t apply to students, who were branded “pathetic” by the college principal after his wife hurled obscenities at them. Liddle, who referred to the students as “jabbering infants”, was so offended he demanded an apology and travel expenses as recompense for the disrespect he had suffered. 

Of course, if students do say the unsayable, the vitriol heaped on them is just as fierce. Last week Tricia Marwick, a former SNP MSP, declared students at her alma mater St Andrews were “pathetic wee trolls” and “poor souls who failed to get into Oxbridge”. Their crime? Writing a satirical article about Nicola Sturgeon. How dare they. 

Julie Bindel, meanwhile, is up in arms about being “de-platformed” by York University after an event where she was due to speak was called off due to security concerns. She referred to those objecting to her talk on the basis of her views on trans rights and gender as “airheads” and accused them of “anti-democratic, censorious bullying”.

As it happens, I’m with Bindel in that I think her talk should have been allowed to go ahead, and it’s unfortunate that the university wasn’t able to ensure it could do so safely. Unlike the Liddle dinner, no one was going to be forced to listen to her, and those who wanted to should have been able to attend. But an established figure throwing a hissy fit because some teenagers were mean about her comes across as unhinged. Doesn’t she have better things to do than hurl insults at them from a platform she enjoys thanks to her lofty status in the media? For that matter, doesn’t Rod Liddle? Or Tricia Marwick? Or Gavin Williamson back when he was the education secretary and getting his knickers in a twist over a portrait of Her Majesty?  

Maybe there is a growing problem with our universities after all – but I don’t think it’s the students. You don’t have to agree with slagging off Nicola Sturgeon or cancelling the Queen to acknowledge that young people have always had questionable judgement and outlandish views – forgetting that fact is as absurd as suggesting no fresher has ever got blind drunk before. Maybe the de-platformers will be embarrassed about their opinions in a few decades, just like I’m embarrassed about throwing up in a college flower bed – or maybe they won’t. But if the grown-ups decrying the death of university culture really believe they never did anything when they were young that would have caused their parents and grandparents to turn purple with indignation, I worry for them. Memory loss is a terrible thing.

[See also: “Darwin’s cultural bias was laced into his science”: Lucy Cooke on why evolutionary biology needs feminism]

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