We don’t need a ‘Free Speech Champion’, we need the government to champion students

British universities are currently failing students in almost every conceivable way

Despite being President of the Free Speech Society, I believe Gavin Williamson’s latest policies fail to address the underlying problems on campus.

Gavin Williamson’s latest announcement of a  “Free Speech Champion” to “fight silencing and censoring at universities” acts as nothing more than a distraction from a government who has consistently failed students of all ages. It is an attempt to fan the flames of the culture war, rather than tackle the reasons why speakers have historically been cancelled.

British universities are currently failing students in almost every conceivable way. From the exploitative efforts to push first years into signing contracts for accommodation they can’t even stay in, to the vastly diminished quality of the university experience due to lockdown, and the lack of willingness for any university to compensate students for their tuition. The government needs to champion students before attempting to address free speech. 

Many students are also rightly outraged by the treatment of our lecturers, who are often forced into extremely precarious temporary contracts. Universities in this country are, now fundamentally, for-profit enterprises and will therefore never put the interests of students or lecturers first if it negatively impacts their bottom line.

Despite the number of students who are frustrated about these issues, there has been no effort from the government to fight for our ability to share these grievances or make the running of universities any more transparent.

Rather than addressing these failures, it appears that the government are instead opting for inexpensive commitments. They are not making the extensive and necessary reforms to the university system that are required.

Whilst it is important to be mindful of censorship on campus, I do not think that a “Free Speech Champion” will be able to deal with this effectively. The reason why the majority of events are “cancelled” is due to universities being unable to provide the adequate security measures required for safety, in the event of a protest. I fail to see how the appointing a “Champion” will address this.

To be clear, I oppose de-platforming, but we need to have an honest and nuanced discussion about this issue and the effectiveness of Williamson’s policies. 

If this Champion is politically neutral and can ensure that the university takes a mediating roll in facilitating difficult conversations, that is welcome. However, the idea that this alone can serve as a “silver bullet”, or will indeed address the underlying causes of students feeling increasingly alienated from the functioning and running of our universities is unrealistic.

To address problems with the discourse on campus, the government needs to champion students.

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