Keeping ‘controversial’ voices off campus

British universities are being advised to screen ‘controversial’ visiting speakers by reading over their speeches in advance. The new guidelines, issued by umbrella interest group Universities UK, are in response to claims that ‘extremists’ use higher education as a recruitment platform.

The proposals will presumably mean someone at each university will be given the task of deciding what is and isn’t ‘controversial’. But this process would be far from straightforward. There’s a real possibility that universities would issue blanket requests to view all upcoming speeches for the sake of covering their backs. Receiving these requests would likely either dissuade visiting speakers from attending university events, or encourage them to tone down their views.

The notion of screening speakers is as impractical as it is prescriptive. I have spoken at various conferences and universities, but the pressures on my time mean I’m not always able to come up with a neatly typed script several days in advance. Sometimes my preparation consists of a few thoughts jotted down on a scrap of paper on the way to the event I’m speaking at. The time required to produce a script - and the implication that I had to stick to it - would make me seriously consider whether I could spare the time. And if I did, then I’d be writing my speech conscious of the fact that my words would be read by a third party whose approval I needed to secure.

Even if these guidelines aren’t fully introduced by universities, their publication will only contribute to the chilling of debate on campus. It sends the message that students are uniquely vulnerable in the face of controversial ideas and need protecting from strong opinions for the fear they will be instantly ‘radicalised’. Ultimately, such guidance deems students unable to cope with real debate. Yet it is only when students are forced to confront and engage with ideas that are outside of the mainstream, and that challenge their existing beliefs, that they can even begin to learn how to think critically. Any student who leaves university without learning to think critically should ask for their tuition fees to be reimbursed.

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. She is also a lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent and the author of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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