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I fought for free speech on campus – but I don’t agree with Tory plans to safeguard it

The plans are extremely ill-thought through.

One year ago my students' union voted to ban the Sun, the Daily Mail, and the Express from campus. Its reasoning was that these papers “have a tendency to fuel fascism, racial tension and hatred in society”.

Although there’s some truth in that assessment, the answer shouldn't be to ban them. Together, they make up over half of the nation's daily newspaper readership. I and hundreds of other City University students opposed the ban, and eventually got it overturned.

In the following months, there were several other highly-publicised cases of campus censorship. The University of Strathclyde’s union banned students from forming an anti-abortion group. Sussex’s union tried to force speakers to submit speeches in advance. And, in the US, white nationalists rioted on university campuses in the name of freedom of expression. 

Now, the government has responded by setting out plans to “protect” free speech at universities. The proposals, announced in October by universities minister Jo Johnson, will give the newly formed Office for Students the power to fine, suspend or deregister universities if they fail to guarantee free speech on campus.

The motive behind these plans is righteous. Free speech is an essential part of any democratic institution – especially a university. By hearing opinions we don’t agree with, we allow our thoughts to be scrutinised, debated, shaped and improved.

But the plans themselves are extremely ill-thought through. They are based on the idea – created by a sensationalist press – that censorship is rife in universities. Despite what the cases above may suggest, this simply isn’t true. These are just the cases that are reported on.

“No-platforming” – refusing a platform to speakers who are likely to incite hatred or violence – “safe spaces” for marginalised groups, and “trigger warnings” about sensitive material have been used in universities for decades.

They’re most commonly employed in support of minority groups who face significant societal disadvantages. Allowing their voices to be heard actually helps to promote freedom of expression.

It’s easy to disregard this as special treatment that stifles debate and shields students from the real world. But we live in a society that simply isn’t equal. The answer to changing that isn’t to carry on, hoping that equal rules will eventually lead to equality. The ideology is deeply ingrained – it needs to also be countered somehow. When enacted properly, these policies operate in a similar way to employment schemes aimed solely at BME graduates or targets to give more women top jobs.

Their benefits are clear, but it is the few occasions on which they’ve been abused that have made them the target of these new proposals. The reality of this debate is that the impact of no platforming, safe spaces and trigger warnings on free speech varies case by case. And that is exactly why a clunky piece of government legislation will be unable to make a positive difference. As we demonstrated last year, the best-placed people to protect free speech on campus are the students themselves.

It’s obvious that the Tories’ wider aim with these plans is to appease their faithful and the right-wing press – those who so relish labelling mine as “the snowflake generation”. It just seems odd that, given the events of the past two years, they would treat us with such patronising disdain. Did they see their performance with young people at the last election?

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What the university staff strike reveals about our broken higher education system

The marketisation of our universities is facing its biggest opposition yet.

The biggest industrial strike ever by academic staff in Britain's universities has begun.

National newspapers are running panicked headlines about what may happen if the strike lasts: “University strike puts final exams in danger”, warns The Times. “University strikes could hit exams and graduation ceremonies”, says the Guardian. But as well as affecting the education of students who are heavily in debt, the strikes will hit academics with very different levels of job security, and university establishments at a time when higher education is on the political agenda. 

The University and College Union voted for strike action last month over a failure to reach an agreement with Universities UK (UUK), the body which represents of the Vice Chancellors of every university in the country, over changes to academics' pension plans.

The pension scheme at the heart of the conflict, the Universities Superannuation Scheme, currently has over 400,000 participants. UUK have stated that the pension scheme currently has a £6.1bn deficit and that the cost of future benefits has increased by one third since 2014. They are proposing a switch from a direct benefit pension scheme (fixed, guaranteed pension payments) to a direct contribution scheme (reliant on stock markets) to maintain the scheme's sustainability.

However, many academics argue the deficit is overstated, and is instead a cynical attempt to reduce the universities' pension liabilties. 

Older and more senior academics who have already spent several decades paying into the system will be less affected by the changes, as contributions will be protected under the old scheme until 2019. 

UCU however allege that this change will result in an average yearly £10,000 loss in staff members' pensions. Academics at 61 universities, including the likes of Oxbridge, UCL, Imperial College London, Cardiff University and the University of Edinburgh will be striking for 14 days. 

The strikes begin on Thursday, and yet no-one seems to know what will happen. FAQs provided by universities to students all appear to have a similar theme: Academic disruption will be minimised, but if you have a complaint, please email us. 

16 percent of academic staff at these universities will be on strike (because most academics aren't a part of a union) but lectures and seminars have still been cancelled. It is still unclear for students whether they will be examined on subjects that they will miss. 

But for the most part, students appear to support the academics. Mark Crawford, a Postgraduate Sabbatical Officer at UCL (the biggest university in the country to strike) says he has been pleasantly surprised by the number of students who have messaged asking him how they can help. 

Perhaps this is due to the pains some academics have gone to minimise the disruption their students will face. Some lecturers have made presentations available online, and have amendeded their reading lists. One academic at King's College London, KCL, has even rearranged her seminars off campus. 

Yet this feeling of goodwill may disappear when reality kicks in. Robert Adderly, a second year Law student at KCL, and a campaigner for the student group provocatively titled “Students Against Strikes” says he’s unsure how supportive students will be once the action actually begins. 

Adderly, while sympathetic to the concerns of the academics does not believe striking is the most effective way to negotiate with Universities UK. He goes on to say that he believes “neither side is willing to compromise” and says that the “only people losing out are students.”

He also says he believes a lot of students “haven’t assessed how they really feel about the strikes” and that the “longer it goes on, the more students who will get angry”. 

Adderly's thoughts are backed by a poll conducted by Trendence UK, a market research company, which found that 38 per cent of students supported their academics on strike, compred to 38 per cent who did not.

Several academics have spoken to the New Statesman off the record about feelings of uneasiness around the strike, arguing that there is a better, less disruptive way of resolving the pension debate. Others are unsure about the leadership of UCU and believe striking will only lead to a build up of work later. 

Professor Andrew Pomiankowski at UCL emailed his students saying while he supported the strike, he would continue conducting his classes this week. He later told the New Statesman “I have a lot of sympathy with the reasons for the strike - the loss of provision of pensions, especially for the younger members of staff. Talking is the only way of resolving this problem. However, I don’t feel that I should disrupt teaching of students. That’s a step too far.”

The strikes go to the heart of the debate about the marketisation of university. Even students who support the strike are in conflict with one another. Notably, students who support the strikes are unhappy with campaigns such as Adderly’s which are also demanding universities compensate them for lost teaching hours. Crawford says your “first instinct shouldn’t be how much am I losing? It should be how much is our staff losing.”

On the other hand, Adderly argues we shouldn’t pretend the marketisation of university hasn’t already happened, saying “It’s here. It’s happening. We are now consumers.” 

Though it appears unlikely that universities will refund students, these strikes are highlighting how our attitudes to higher education have changed in a short space of time, and causing some to ask if this is the future we want for British higher education.