Craig Harper: We need more viewpoint diversity and less censorship on campus

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It can’t have escaped many readers that the University of Lincoln’s Student’s Union made national headlines on Tuesday after reportedly suspending the Conservative Society’s account on Twitter.

The story stems from the online magazine Spiked’s ranking of universities in terms of their approach to free speech on campus. Spiked grades universities and their SUs using a traffic light system: red means that an institution is hostile to ideas of free speech, amber indicates some loose restrictions, and a green rating generally means that free speech is protected on campus.

Lincoln received a red rating due to the SU’s apparent policies of ‘no platforming’ (where speakers who hold views that are deemed ‘extreme’ are banned from expressing these), and ‘safe spaces’ (where speakers whose viewpoints are considered offensive or upsetting are asked to modify their language).

The Conservative Society tweeted a link to this report (which subsequently seems been deleted by those acting as administrators for the account), with some online commentators reporting that this was seen as bringing the SU into disrepute.

While the furore over Lincoln SU’s approach has gained national coverage, this is an issue dogging universities all across the country. Of the 115 universities ranked by Spiked, 73 were given a red rating, and just seven were given the green light on free speech.

It’s clear then that there is a big problem with freedom of speech on university campuses, following trends that have been witnessed in the USA for a number of years.

More and more students are raising concerns that courses are not representative enough of different social groups, and controversial topics are being presented with ‘trigger warnings’ designed to prepare students for potentially sensitive material.

While this level of apparent political correctness may seem inconsequential, it is symptomatic of something more sinister. Even as somebody who identifies as being politically liberal, it’s clear that universities have shifted further to the political left.

It’s rare to meet a conservative on campus, and jokes about Brexit and Donald Trump are commonplace in both staff conversations and lecture theatres.

Not only do these actions normalise a left-leaning way of thinking in the next generation of graduates, but they stifle opportunities for genuine debates about alternative ways of viewing the world and forming responses to important social issues.

The irony of this shift in campus culture is it churns out graduates who are unable to think critically about the most controversial issues in modern society. Instead, they view disagreements as personal attacks, and resort immediately to retaliations and name-calling in response to such debates.

Not only does this create graduates who aren’t ready for political debate in the real world, but it breeds a wider level of contempt for academics and experts that have drastic political implications. After all, it was Brexit leader Michael Gove who said that “people in this country have had enough of experts” – and unfortunately he was right.

Changing the political climate on university campuses – not to one of conservative orthodoxy, but to one that embraces and thrives upon constructive debate – is the reason that many academics (myself included) have joined Heterodox Academy, which is an organisation promoting the idea of viewpoint diversity in university classrooms.

The aim of this movement is to expose students to a range of different opinions, and to encourage them to think about issues and debate people from different ideological persuasions. After all, the whole point of gaining a university education is to broaden your horizons – not to simply have your existing views parroted back and reinforced to you.

I want to close this piece with a plea to students themselves. If your SU puts in place no platforming or safe space policies – no matter which institution you attend – it is binding on you to question this.

Make sure that they understand that you are in favour of all types of diversity – gender, racial, religious, and viewpoint. The SU is there to serve you, and to facilitate your intellectual experience.

It is only through the civil and thoughtful exposure to a range of viewpoints that this intellectual nourishment can be fully achieved, and to properly prepare you for the wider world after graduation.


WACTH: Lincoln students protest for free speech