FREEDOM of speech is a central feature of our notion of universities. Such freedom is not without its responsibilities, and the restraints imposed by law and considerations of decency, but life on university campuses has proceeded with little resort to restrain or inhibit publication of material that could be considered a criticism of the university administration.
It is against this backcloth that an innovation by Edinburgh University should be considered. It has required student leaders to sign a contract agreeing not to criticise the institution without giving its management prior notice, adding that it would only continue to fund its students’ association if it was given 48 hours’ notice of any “detrimental” statement or publication. The clause was inserted as a condition of grant when awarding Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA) £2.3 million this summer.
The university might consider such a clause to be reasonable given that it has responsibility for financing EUSA’s activities and that it has removed an earlier condition that the university’s secretary or principal should be able to edit anything being considered for publication. To this extent the clause may be seen as a modification. But that is not at all how student representatives see it. The clause has drawn the ire of Gordon Maloney, president of the National Union of Students (NUS) in Scotland, who has said it is “completely unacceptable” for the university to place such a condition which could restrict the association’s officers “to give honest and constructive criticism over university policies which affect the students they are elected to represent”. It runs totally counter, he argues, to the strong reputation the university has built over hundreds of years for fostering ideas and critical thinkers.
Even if the principle of oversight in some form is conceded, the clause as constituted presents significant issues of practicality, both in the definition of what is and is not “detrimental” and the difficulties it would pose for a publication seeking clearance to publish under such a 48-hour rule. No indication is given on how long it might take for the authorities to adjudicate on a matter drawn to their attention or whether student representatives would be able to appeal a negative ruling. Arguably more concerning is the precedent this clause may establish for further restrictions and conditions to be imposed on the approval of student organisation grants.
Edinburgh University has enjoyed a good working relationship with its student campus – a relationship dependent on the goodwill of both parties. It cannot be beyond the competence of both sides to agree a means by which the university has the opportunity to respond to criticism in a manner that does not impede publication or the expression of dissent. Both students and the university authorities would gain by the adoption of an agreed and mutually respectful procedure.
Between the dream and the reality
No conference speech quite fired up its audience as that of First Minister Alex Salmond to the SNP faithful on Saturday. But the most critical question remains: what will it all mean in practice?
Mr Salmond revealed the release date of the Scottish Government’s long-awaited white paper – Tuesday, 26 November.
For months, ministers have deferred answers to key questions by reference to this document.
It is right, of course, that such answers should not be off the cuff but part of a considered and over-arching statement of legislative intent. However, there is a danger here that the SNP administration has allowed expectations about the specifics of this document to run ahead of what it can reasonably deliver.
Critical issues such as currency sharing, the functioning of the welfare system and arrangements for the division of defence assets – personnel, budgets and equipment – will all require extensive negotiation only after a Yes vote has been secured and the passage of a Bill through the Westminster parliament.
It will be based on assumptions of continued membership of the European Union and Nato. However, the terms and conditions will also still remain to be negotiated.
For all the talk of a “moment of destiny” the reality is of a prolonged period of uncertainty. And before then is the formidable task of winning support for independence, which in opinion poll readings continues to lag well behind support for Scotland remaining within the Union. It is one thing to enthuse a conference of supporters. It is another to prepare them for a long struggle ahead before a Scottish government would be in a position to deliver on any of those aspirational promises cheered so loudly on Saturday.