Adam Ramsay: Edinburgh Uni “gagging” a mistake

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Edinburgh University has a new head of administration. It looks like they’re about to learn the hard way what many of their predecessors have worked out over the years: if you try to control students, you’ll soon regret it.

Universities in Scotland aren’t corporations. They are communities. They work through conversation. And like any discussion, if one side tries to shut the other up, then they will soon find another way to be heard. The university can have an angry EUSA president in the pages of this paper, or they can face occupations and protests from those they exist to serve. Every new administrator ends up accepting the former, though it seems this new one may be going to learn that the hard way.

Students’ unions, like all unions, exist to serve their members. Sometimes, that means they will be critical of their university, and that can cause red faces for those in power. But if the administration listens, they will hear that these criticisms are usually crucial to improving how they function.

Now, two day’s notice may sound like it isn’t a significant stifling of dissent. But in practice, it makes it impossible to give quotes to journalists as stories emerge. It means you can’t answer questions at public meetings. I was given a deadline of a few hours for this piece, because that’s how papers work. The EUSA president - who, unlike me, has a democratic mandate, would be banned from writing this. In the fast pace world in which all public criticism takes place, a two day gagging rule is little different from a general gagging rule.

It’s important to remember too who it is that pays for the university, and where its history lies. As a publicly funded body, it’s important that the university is publicly accountable. Imagine if they tried to restrict hospital patients from speaking out about failures in their treatment. Imagine if they tried to curtail care home users from complaining. Public Services should be open to Public criticism, they shouldn’t be in the business of restricting it.

Edinburgh university is not the property of its Principal of its Secretary. It is the property of the university community and of the people of Scotland as a whole. The university was founded by the people of the city as a recognition of the importance of democratic education - the first such institution in Europe. And that democratic principle requires free and open discussion - including allowing thing to be said, which you wouldn’t want to be said, at times you don’t want them to be said.

And why does the university want this power? Surely its press office doesn’t need two days to consider their response to tricky questions if they think they are doing the right thing. Being a spin doctor is only hard of you are trying to hide something.

But of course gagging EUSA doesn’t actually gag students - more than ever, they have other ways to express their opinions. And Edinburgh has a more politically active student population than almost any other university in the UK. The university will come to regret thinking it can crack down on student dissent.

• Adam Ramsay is co-editor or OurKingdom, the UK section of openDemocracy.net and was 2008-9 eusa president