Campus censorship has become so common that a radical preacher being prevented from speaking at a university’s Islamic Society barely registers a raised eyebrow. Yet when Haitham al-Haddad was prevented from talking about sharia law as part of the University of Kent’s ‘Discover Islam Week’ last year, it became newsworthy. Because unusually, it wasn’t students protesting against al-Haddad’s alleged homophobic and anti-Semitic views. NUS officials did not issue edicts demanding his invitation be rescinded. No, it was university managers who intervened to stop the talk from going ahead. In the post-mortem that followed, the student union was chastised for failing to act upon its No Platform policy.
This example sheds light on the way that campus censorship works today. It makes clear the convenient correlation between Prevent, the government-backed campaign against extremism, and No Platforming. Universities have a legal duty under the 2015 Counter-terrorism and Security Act to demonstrate that they are actively countering radicalisation and religious extremism and are preventing terrorism. This involves vetting external speakers and barring those likely to incite hatred on the grounds of race or religion or supporting a proscribed terrorist group. The NUS has waged a high-profile campaign against Prevent. However, universities are often spared from having to act on this censorious and illiberal legislation because students’ unions beat them to it. What’s more, student No Platform goes further than Prevent and requires no justification other than someone, somewhere, possibly being offended by the suggested speaker.
This cosy relationship has worked well for universities. Student officials have taken (well-deserved) flak for being ban-happy authoritarians. University managers, meanwhile, have been able to avoid getting their hands dirty. With a few honourable exceptions, such as Louise Richardson, vice chancellor of the University of Oxford, they have had little to say when students No Platform speakers or ban newspapers. Only now, as spiked’ss latest Free Speech University Rankings show, universities are catching up with students’ unions and being far more upfront about restricting free speech on campus. Increasingly explicit institutional restrictions on what can and can’t be said are not a result of student officials losing their censorious impulse. Nor are they a result of a breakdown in the relationship between students’ unions and university managers. In fact, the opposite is the case, and the connections between the two are more intertwined than ever.
Throughout its almost 100-year history, the NUS has only rarely been a thorn in the side of universities. It has always aimed at cultivating future leadership, as attested to by the long list of former NUS presidents who have carried their anti-democratic impulses with them into parliament or journalism. Likewise, the NUS has always had an interest in commercial activity, generating revenue from selling travel, insurance or beer. What’s changed over the decades is that the NUS has dropped its independence from universities and become increasingly incorporated within institutional management structures.
The intimacy between universities and students’ unions has been driven by a number of factors. The 1994 Education Act clarified that students’ unions were charities and, as such, had to comply with charity law. Having dropped the ‘no politics’ clause from its constitution only 25 years earlier, the NUS had to stop putting resources into general political campaigning and focus solely upon issues that affect ‘students as students’. Since then, students’ unions have become more focused on ‘core activities’ concerned with ‘advancing the education of students.’