Does a lack of freedom of speech in universities promote extremism on campus?
This week, The Sunday Times published an article on far-right extremist groups in the UK, discussing their targeting of university campuses. Considering the targeted universities, I noticed a consistency: they had all-but-one received amber ranking in the 2018 Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR) by Spiked, an online libertarian publication (it is notable that 54% are red, 40% amber and 6% green). I deliberated this finding. Durham, York, Nottingham Trent and Leicester were the universities named. The former three were ranked amber, whereas Leicester was just into the red due to the no platform policy of the Students’ Union, which is only in place due to NUS affiliation; in other words, Leicester is amber in all but name.
Why is it, then, that universities which, according to the Spiked website, have ‘chilled free speech through intervention’, attract the far-right? I have an answer, which is that there is no space for them elsewhere. My visits to open days evidence this.
On my open day visit to Warwick (a deep shade of red on the FSUR), I repeatedly came across protesters voicing their dismay of the various issues at the ‘forefront’ of our society: outspoken professors, animal rights, and, ironically, tuition fees, were a few choices of protest. The most creative and attention-grabbing was the display against outspoken professors – this neat queue of overexcited students ranting and raving about how they didn’t agree with the views of some professors could’ve easily been mistaken for a conga at a kid’s birthday party. The harbinger of the conga had duct tape over his mouth, as if having just escaped a hostage situation; if that were the case, I would certainly be more sympathetic and understanding – alas, it was just a run-of-the-mill, student-led, haphazard exhibition of outrage.
The Bristol open day saw one protest, the context of which I cannot remember, but more fascinating was the following conversation that I had with a philosophy student:
Her: ‘Do you like activism?’
Her: ‘You might enjoy the Labour Party Society then.’
Was this an indirect way of asking me if I was Labour or Tory? What was I meant to say? If I said the wrong thing would I be lambasted? Blacklisted? Could I explain that, at that point in time, I considered myself a supporter of neither party?
Me: ‘Well, maybe. I’m sure there are lots of societies here.’
Her: ‘Yeah, we have loads of societies.’
I had diverted the trap masterfully – the simple ‘maybe’ wins the day again.
Exeter, on the other hand, was amber – and it showed. Ironically, it seemed that the stronger the endorsement of free speech, the less free speech took place. Exeter saw no protests and no partisan small-talk; in the politics taster lecture, the lecturer even spoke objectively about Trump without making a snarky comment! So, how does all of this relate to the far-right appeal in amber universities?
From my observations, it seems that there are two types of university: those that tolerate strong opinions on the left, and those that tolerate strong opinions on both the left and the right. I am careful to use the term ‘extremism’ here, replacing it instead with ‘strong opinions’, since this hypothesis has greater scope than the minority of extremists found on university campuses. Yet, it does present a potential solution to the problem of extremism from both the left and the right on university campuses, which is to make every campus a place where both sides of the political spectrum can reside freely.
Extremism breeds extremism, and the current hubs of extremism in certain universities, particularly on the right, will only grow due to this. Instead, if all universities were amber, there would be no clear choice for those on the left or right, diminishing extremist hubs while simultaneously promoting free, uncensored speech with an underlying expectation that students at the university have the sensitivity not to offend others, rather than assuming they will and predetermining the consequences thereof.
Jo Johnson, the Higher Education minister, began this with a plan for universities that fail to enforce free speech to be fined, suspended or ultimately deregistered by the new Office for Students. This was a start but is not a means to an end. This plan attacks the universities themselves, but the real problem is the NUS. All NUS-affiliated Students’ Unions are automatically red on the FSUR, since the NUS necessitates that affiliated Students’ Unions ban speakers that breach what the higher-ups in the NUS consider offensive.
On a final note, until the NUS take a more welcoming approach to free speech, far-right extremism will continue to grow in universities with non-NUS-affiliated Students’ Unions such as Durham, York, and Nottingham Trent, while far-left extremism will remain overbearing in NUS-backed universities. The proliferation of extremism, no matter its political affiliation, serves no benefit to society, appearing particularly undesirable in contrast to the nurturing of personal opinion in politically diverse environments where free speech is encouraged.