Tiffany Jenkins: Stop treating students like kids

Students should be trusted to think for themselves. Picture: John Devlin
Students should be trusted to think for themselves. Picture: John Devlin
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BANNING organisations from freshers’ events means we are denying youngsters the chance to formulate their own views, writes Tiffany Jenkins

Going to university is about learning to think for yourself, or it should be. Students are introduced to a body of knowledge, one not simply handed down from on high for them to repeat but a set of ideas with which they have to grapple, interrogate and question.

First-year students have often moved out of the family home for the first time and are starting to take responsibility for their day-to-day lives. That’s not easy. Encountering new thinking and experiences on your own is difficult. But it would not be possible to move out and enter an institution of higher learning without running into a little trouble. Thankfully, the quality of ready meals has improved in recent years.

Testing out ideas, however, is becoming more difficult. One obstacle is that student bodies increasingly protect their peers from the most important aspect of university life: encountering opinions other than their own. This is done in the name of shielding students from ideas that cause offence, a soft kind of caring censorship that is spreading across campuses nationwide. Student bodies are cocooning young people from unpleasant and challenging opinions as well as ones that those in charge have simply taken a dislike to.

At Dundee University freshers’ fayre, an anti-abortion group – the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) – was told it could not take a stall. It had had one since 2004, with the exception of last year when it was squeezed out, apparently due to lack of space. Dundee University Students’ Association (DUSA) is upfront about why it excluded the group. Douglas Schreiber, vice-president of DUSA, said SPUC’s last stall had literary material and foetal models which were not just offensive, but “highly offensive”.

He added: “We have students on campus who have had abortions in the past and there was clearly some distress felt by a number of the students who attended the fayre surrounding this issue.

“The students largely do not want anything to do with a group that promotes the removal of rights over bodily autonomy for more than half the student population that attend this university.”

I would bet that the SPUC’s is not the busiest of stalls, even when its attendance is permitted. The organisation is confident abortion is wrong. Its literature is strident. Abortion is the “deliberate destruction of an unborn child,” reads one leaflet, it “denies a child’s right to life”. The mother who “expels” the foetus, a flyer warns, is likely suffer from post-abortion-trauma.

The SPUC’s promotional material includes pictures of smiling babies and models of foetuses at various stages of the pregnancy designed to humanise them and put people off having abortions, but that is the point of the organisation – it is “pro-life” – so what do you expect?

And it’s a legitimate point of view, if one that I do not hold: being pro-choice, I believe that abortion is right, full stop – if that’s what the woman chooses – even at the late stages of a pregnancy. But I also support discussion and debate about abortion – and about any other issue. Our actions have consequences that we should be aware of and we should listen to objections to them.

So what if some students find the SPUC’s promotional material offensive, or even highly offensive? Being affronted and outraged is inevitable if you live in a society where people hold different and opposing views. Of course, we could choose to live in a country where we are only permitted to express the same opinions, ones deemed acceptable and inoffensive by our betters, but there would limitations to such a set up – it would be dull and authoritarian.

First-year students at a freshers’ fayre should be exposed to a range of views. An introduction to university life is not just about picking up free condoms and discounts on food and drink; it’s about learning to think independently. These students should be treated as capable men and women, which means being allowed to listen to different opinions and to make up their own minds.

The act of restricting one group from promoting its point of view at a freshers’ fayre is not a one-off. The creep of censorship on campus started some decades ago, with the NUS position of “No Platform” – which bars certain organisations and people from speaking in public. No Platform was first held in relation to fascists and to the BNP, but the list of those barred has been extended to include Hizb ut-Tahrir, George Galloway and even the feminist Julie Bindle, after she made comments on gender reassignment surgery that some found transphobic and cried offence in response – the weapon du jour used to shut people up.

Censorship policies now include a ban on selected newspapers (many student unions’ refuse to sell the Sun, in opposition to Page 3) and pop music: last year, Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines song was banned from being played in any of the student union buildings, first at the University of Edinburgh and then at many universities nationwide. Some of these bans seem silly. One song and a tabloid – does anyone care? But it is a problem: opinions on campus are more regulated than they have ever been.

The National Union of Students and many students’ unions employ a “safe space” policy, which extends to all events in their unions. This entails an accessible environment in which “every student feels comfortable, safe and able to get involved in all aspects of the organisation, free from intimidation or judgment”. But university should never be an intellectually safe space.

What is at stake here is how we view students. Trying to silence the views of people you disagree with – no matter how wrong, ugly or daft – says a great deal about how young adults are seen. They should be trusted to listen to others and think for themselves; instead they are treated like impressionable children. Students today should demand a little more respect.