Last week, The Times reported that students at UK universities are being forced to conform to new codes restricting the use of gendered language. A document from a course on religious activism at the University of Hull warns students that ‘failure to use gender-sensitive language will impact your mark’.
Examples of gender-insensitive language it cites include common terms such as ‘mankind’, ‘forefathers’ and ‘manpower’. In their stead, students are encouraged to use words like ‘humankind’, ‘ancestors’ and ‘human resources’.
Such bizarre speech codes are nothing new at UK universities. But up until recently such overtly petty word-policing was more the preserve of students’ unions. Now it seems universities are getting more in on the act. Indeed, in this year’s Free Speech University Rankings, spiked found that university administrations are becoming increasingly restrictive.
But we shouldn’t be surprised. Though many academics and vice-chancellors have recently spoken out against students’ unions’ war on free speech, the idea that words are dangerous, that speech must be micromanaged for the sake of protecting minorities and women from offence, has been popular in the academy for decades.
This is all a great shame. Universities should be places where students can freely articulate their beliefs and have them challenged accordingly. Putting certain words off-limits – for whatever reason – threatens this ideal. What’s more, these restrictions will have an additional impact on the quality of students’ work. They will become too concerned with purging their work of supposedly offensive phrases to develop their ideas and arguments properly.