Sunday, July 06, 2014

University should never be a ‘safe space’

The obsession with safety has undermined academic freedom

When I began my undergraduate course in politics and sociology in September 2010, I was looking forward to getting stuck in to some serious ideas and discussions with my peers. The opening core module for the politics side of my degree dealt with ‘essentially contested concepts’. After a few weeks of discussing liberalism, Marxism, conservatism and power, we moved on to some more contemporary issues.

Following a discussion on porn, the professor leading the module declared that the following week we would be discussing rape – that is, the policy pertaining to the offence and academic scholarship concerned with the concept. Good, I thought: that sounds interesting and not something I’ve thought about much before. However, he then went on to tell the lecture hall that if anyone did not want to attend the lecture and the seminar, that would be fine. After several weeks of it being drummed into us that all seminars and lectures were compulsory, I was a bit stunned.

At that point in my university career, I was still a bit naive about the role the students’ unions and university management played in managing discussion on ‘dangerous’ or controversial issues. Looking back now, it is quite clear what was happening. The professor was concerned for the safety of me and my peers; he was concerned that discussing an issue such as rape could be potentially damaging and harmful to certain students enrolled on the course. It might appear a well-meaning consideration to have, but it masked a wider phenomenon which anyone concerned with free speech and intellectual inquiry should be worried about.

The recent obsession with ‘safety’ at universities presents a clear threat to academic freedom. The National Union of Students’ (NUS) ‘safe space’ policy is perhaps the most worrying manifestation of this trend. The University of Bristol students’ union is one of many UK universities to adopt the policy in an effort to provide ‘an accessible environment in which every student feels comfortable, safe and able to get involved in all aspects of the organisation free from intimidation or judgement’. The provisions of such policies range from ensuring freedom from physical and criminal activity to being ‘free’ from hearing phrases such as ‘it’s so gay’ and words like ‘schizo’ and ‘insane’. In some cases, students’ unions have even encouraged students to consider how ‘appropriate’ their choice of clothing is.

What this policy is expressly concerned with is ensuring that students feel ‘comfortable’. But what this means in practice is ensuring they are not exposed to judgemental language, opinions and arguments. It’s a far cry from the serious and grown-up world of debate that many students wish to get involved in at university; being argued with, judged on the strength of your arguments and critically assessed are essential to any discussion of ideas.

The extent to which ideas themselves are increasingly seen as ‘dangerous’ is another worrying trend. Recently, the University College London Union (UCLU) banned a Nietzsche reading group, arguing that it was ‘promoting a far-right, fascist ideology at UCL’ which threatened the ‘safety of the UCL student body and UCLU members’. A few weeks later, at Warwick University, Alex Davies, the leader of a far-right student group called National Action, ‘voluntarily’ withdrew from his studies following a campaign fronted by Warwick Anti-Racist Society (WARSoc) to have him expelled. This call was bolstered by the University College Union (UCU), which passed a motion in support of WARSoc, calling on university management to protect the safety of students and staff on campuses across the UK in light of the supposed ‘rise’ of this new far-right group.

Safe-space policies present a real and present threat to the prospects of free speech, free inquiry and academic development on campuses across the UK. The idea that students are in need of a ‘safe space’ in which to carry out their studies presents them as fragile and vulnerable. And, when you think students are too fragile even to take part in reasoned debate, and their welfare must be upheld above all other concerns, then academic freedom will inevitably wither away; cast aside in the name of a comfortable, unchallenging and, above all, ‘safe’ education.


Student Rights and the intolerance of the NUS

Last month, a UK anti-extremist student organisation, Student Rights, was banned by seven students’ unions and condemned by the National Union of Students (NUS). Student Rights describes itself as a ‘non-partisan group dedicated to supporting equality, democracy and freedom from extremism on university campuses’. However, it has faced criticism due to its links to the Henry Jackson Society, a think-tank led by such loathed ‘neocons’ as Douglas Murray.

Some suggest that Student Rights’ links to the Henry Jackson Society have shaped its campaigns, and led it intentionally to target Muslim students. Critics of Student Rights substantiate this claim by arguing that a report published by the group in 2013 regarding gender segregation at student society meetings deliberately demonised Muslim students. Pete Mercer, former vice-president of the NUS, even called the report a ‘witch hunt’.

A spokesman for the London School of Economics Students’ Union (LSESU), one of the unions that banned Student Rights, suggested that the report was flawed, since it did not state whether the gender segregation was enforced or voluntary. A fair point, but if LSESU was that eager to take on the findings of this report, one would have thought it could carry out its own research and take on Student Rights point-by-point. Instead, the nominally left-wing union took such offence at a right-leaning organisation commenting on university affairs that it decided simply to silence them.

Calling Student Rights ‘Islamophobic’ seems a little strong. Indeed, in the past, Student Rights has condemned the defacement of Muslim prayer rooms at King’s College London. The intolerant zeal with which students’ unions have clamped down on this organisation is far more disturbing. This is not the healthy, free-thinking intellectualism that students are supposed to aspire to. Instead, it’s another attempt by students’ unions to monopolise political thinking on campus. All students who wish to uphold the truly liberal values of free speech and pluralism should do all they can to stop this – we are the only people who can reverse this disturbing trend.


The school leavers who aren't ready for work: One in three British business executives are concerned about young people's attitude

One in three business executives are concerned that school leavers do not have the right attitude for the world of work, according to a new survey.

Many businesses see a young person’s mindset and general aptitude for the workplace as more important than academic results, but fear school leavers are lacking these vital skills, the CBI/Pearson annual education survey found.

It also warned there are continuing concerns about the literacy and numeracy skills of workers, with many firms admitting that they have had to laid on remedial classes for employees.

And it suggests that while many employers are looking for staff with degrees in science and maths-based subjects, some have reservations about both the quantity and quality of these graduates.

The CBI’s survey is based on responses from 291 companies collectively employing nearly 1.5 million people.

The findings show that around three fifths (61 per cent) are concerned about the resilience and self-management of school leavers, while a third (33 per cent) are worried about attitudes to work.

At the same time, employers rate attitudes to work and a young person’s general aptitude as their top priority when recruiting (85 per cent  and 63 per cent respectively), ahead of literacy and numeracy (44 per cent) and academic results (30 per cent).

The report suggests that since attitude is the 'single most important consideration' when young people are seeking their first job, 'developing a constructive attitude during their schooling is fundamental to working life'.

CBI director-general John Cridland said: 'We’re looking for young people that are rigorous, rounded and grounded. The Government has spent a lot of time improving the rigour of studies and qualifications, which is something we support.

'But businesses put more emphasis on attitudes than academic results. It’s the rounded and grounded part that isn’t always there.

'Young people today are more streetwise than my generation, they’ve been to more places, seen more things, their view of life is very streetwise. What’s lacking is those skills you need to be able to work with people effectively - working as a team, self-confidence, self-discipline.

'We think young people are leaving school unprepared for the fact that the world of work is a very different environment to school.'

Mr Cridland said that youngsters should not be given lessons on work skills, but should learn them as a general part of their education.

'The worst thing schools could do is teach it as a separate subject,' he said.  'The last thing we need is a GCSE in employability.'

He argued that young people do not have access to decent work experience that would teach them about the working world and a problem still exists with school careers advice, which is failing to give young people the help and support they need.

Just over half (52 per cent) of firms want schools to improve awareness of the working world among 14 to 19-year-olds with support from businesses.

Two thirds (66 per cent) of employers said they were willing to play a bigger part in the school careers system.

The CBI said it was calling for Ofsted to be overhauled to ensure that both academic progress and 'development of character' are a priority in schools.

The report goes on to say that while most employers rate the overall skill levels of their employees as satisfactory, over half (54 per cent) are aware of weaknesses in literacy among at least some of their staff, while 53 per cent said the same about numeracy and 61 per cent said the same of IT skills.

Around 44 per cent of those questioned have organised remedial training for adult employees in at least one basic skills area in the last year, while 28 per cent have done so for young people joining them from school or college.

Mr Cridland said: 'This summer, as every summer, around 30 per cent will leave the education system without the literacy and numeracy they need to get them through what could be 55 years of working life. They have been failed by the system.'

He suggested that the problem starts early on, with children who are behind at the end of primary school less likely to gain good GCSEs at age 16, while some pupils are starting school already behind in areas such as vocabulary.

'We are trying to put things right that have already gone wrong,' he said.  'We need to get them right in the early days.'

Some 85 per cent of those questioned said they want primary schools to focus on developing pupils literacy and numeracy skills (85 per cent), the survey found.

The survey also found that 48 per cent of firms prefer graduates with STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) degrees, but 46 per cent have concerns about the quantity of these graduates and 48% are worried about the quality.

Mr Cridland added that there are concerns that not enough people are studying science and maths, adding that schools and universities need to make sure that their courses keep pace with the world of work and technology.


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