Why is the Government talking about uni free speech when students can’t pay their rent?

We don’t need a ‘free speech champion’ – we need a mental health champion

The Government made a rare mention of university students yesterday, announcing its commitment to tackle an issue we thought only really mattered to Oxbridge nerds and the sexually repressed.

Gavin Williamson isn’t spearheading a campaign to tackle the growing mental health crisis. He isn’t announcing new measures to compensate students for online degrees or for houses they’re paying for but can’t live in. And he hasn’t unveiled plans to chip away at the growing problem of digital poverty among uni students.

Instead, the Education Minister has announced that a “free speech champion” will be appointed to clamp down on the no-platforming and cancel culture plaguing university campuses up and down the country.

Like clockwork, the issue started trending on Twitter. The news was on the Telegraph’s front page. Everybody who’s ever been “silenced” used columns in national newspapers to support the idea.

The problem is, it’s completely overblown. It’s just another example of the Tories pandering to pensioners and being out of touch with young people.

Students don’t need a free speech champion – we need a mental health champion

Gavin Williamson said he’s “deeply worried about the chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring.” Boris Johnson has even taken time out of his busy schedule to tweet about the free speech “crisis” – just the second time he’s tweeted about universities during the pandemic.

This is a level of concern not seen by students since Miss Rona descended on our shores. But, when it comes to issues that actually matter, the concern swiftly disappears.

In response to growing financial pressures on students, the Government announced a tokenistic £50m hardship fund equating to £20 per student. What’s that? About a day’s rent in Bristol? Pathetic.

On top of this, the ongoing mental health crisis among university students is nearing breaking point. According to a Tab poll, 92 per cent of Nottingham students say their mental health has worsened as a direct result of the pandemic. Confession pages like Camfess have seen a huge spike in posts relating to mental health.

Students don’t need a free speech champion. We need a mental health champion.

There is no free speech crisis on campus

The Government would have you believe there’s a freedom of speech crisis consuming U.K. universities.  This is simply not true.

According to a recent study, a mere 0.06 per cent of talks or events on university campuses have been either interrupted or cancelled as a direct result of the views of speakers.

UCU General Secretary Jo Grady sees the Government as “fighting phantom threats to free speech” at a time when there are so many more pressing issues. Who decided that the right time to have a squabble over who gets to speak at uni debates was during a pandemic when those events can’t even take place?

Grady said: “In reality the biggest threats to academic freedom and free speech come not from staff and students, or from so-called ‘cancel culture’, but from ministers’ own attempts to police what can and cannot be said on campus, and a failure to get to grips with the endemic job insecurity and managerialist approaches which mean academics are less able to speak truth to power.”

There are already plenty of freedom of speech laws to which universities must adhere. The Education Act (1986), the Education Reform Act (1988) and the Higher Education and Research Act (2017) all work to ensure free speech is upheld on campus.

Students can also make complaints about freedom of speech to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA).  In fact, the new measures are so badly thought out that the OIA has said it’s “concerned” by them, arguing that creating a free speech champion, who will sit on a different board (the Office for Students) will only confuse students who want to bring forward genuine concerns relating to free speech.

It’s insulting that the Government is going on about free speech on campus when students can’t pay rent

The Government has once again shown just how out of touch it is with young people. Williamson is forcing an overblown issue into the limelight to make angry pensioners even angrier, all the while exposing his complete inability to understand what matters to students.

NUS Vice President Hilary Gyebi-Ababio puts it best: “At a time when students are facing untold hardship, the government would be much better advised to focus on providing the practical support that students desperately need, through maintenance grants, no-detriment policies and funding to eradicate digital poverty, rather than attacking the very institutions that have stepped up to fill the gaps in support being offered.”

The Government doesn’t care about students at a time when we really need its support. It’s time Williamson and Bojo took the issues that genuinely affect students more seriously, instead of focusing on those that aren’t important at all.

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