‘I’ve been told that I’m not welcome on campus’
A libertarian student slams the groupthink dominating UK student unions.
‘I’ve been told that I’m not welcome on campus.’ These are the words not of some far-right nutjob or Islamic extremist, falling foul of the National Union of Students’ (NUS) infamous No Platform policy, but Victoria Monro, a second-year student of philosophy and economics at University College London and the president of the UCLU Libertarian Society.
Monro is also on the executive board of Liberty League, a student organisation in the UK that brings together libertarians of both left and right, and holds an annual national conference called the Freedom Forum, which will be taking place in London this weekend. In between conference preparations, I snatched half an hour of Monro’s time for a coffee. It quickly became clear that her own experience of being sidelined on campus was not unique.
As Liberty League’s membership has grown, Monro has found that other members have struggled to set up societies at universities, in which virulent pro-freedom politics seems to upset the meddling student-union bureaucrats who sign off on new student groups. ‘We’ve had members have difficulty just getting an affiliation meeting, it being cancelled time and time again’, she says. ‘It’s difficult to know if that’s purely because we are a libertarian society or if it’s just that unions are ineffective. But either way, it’s pretty damning.’
Indeed, it seems that the layer upon layer of student-union bureaucracy seems to, in itself, create a block to students organising politically. ‘At UCL, they make life so difficult for student societies. The things you have to do to even put on an event. Even if you’ve had a speaker confirmed previously, you have to go through the same process again.’
Unfortunately, it seems the compulsion of student unions to vet what can and can’t be said on campus is rather widespread. It has fostered a palpable atmosphere of groupthink, Monro tells me, where anything contentious or against the status quo is effectively silenced. ‘I do think a lot of self-censorship goes on and, I’m going to be honest, I’m guilty of it myself’, she says. ‘I find myself toning down what I would normally have said in discussions, as otherwise our points would be instantly rejected.’
This oppressive political atmosphere has been compounded in the past year by the domino-rally of bans spreading throughout British universities. Everything from ‘Blurred Lines’ to Page 3 of the Sun has been censored by student unions, more often than not without consultation with the student body. ‘I think these bans show that student unions don’t trust us to make decisions for ourselves. They have their own ideas, their own campaigns, and they ignore the opinion of everyone else’, she argues.
As patronising as many student-union actions seem to be, unions often justify them by insisting they have a democratic mandate to do so. ‘It’s factually untrue’, Monro interjects. Indeed, the facts seem to be on her side. At UCL, a measly 16.3 per cent of students turned out to vote in the last student-union elections. The apathy, Monro reckons, is completely understandable. ‘I look at how many people vote for student-union officers, and then I look at what they do and I understand why nobody votes.’
But while student unions have shrunk in relevancy, their actions have become ever-more zealous. In 2012, after the London School of Economics student union voted to ban the Sun, the libertarian Hayek Society decided to distribute copies of the offending newspaper on its freshers’ fair stall – that was until a rabble of students defaced their stall. ‘When the unions make rules about what reading material is allowed on campus, it’s of little surprise that some students interpret that as legitimising their efforts to force others to comply.’
As students’ free speech is being trampled on by their self-appointed betters in their student unions, Monro is resolute that students need to make a firm, principled stand. ‘No one is going to stand up for our freedom of speech for us if we don’t do it for ourselves.’ While she admits that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to displace existing student-union cliques which, year after year, have a tight grip on student-union offices, there are plenty of ways in which students can take them on, even as other means of protest, as the Hayek society discovered, are being clamped down on: ‘If you don’t like what they’re doing, don’t use their cafes, don’t use their bars. Every student needs to take a principled stand.’
As she prepares to enter her final year at UCL and pass on the reins of her society, Monro is confident that her colleagues will be able to take more of a stand against the student-union censors: ‘As this was the first year of the UCLU Libertarian Society, I think it was unfortunately necessary that we had to soften our arguments to become established. Going forward, I see an opportunity for us to be more vocal and out there and to be less concerned with what other people think.’ They’ve certainly got their work cut out for them.
Tom Slater is assistant editor at spiked.
The UK Liberty League Freedom Forum is taking place from 11 – 13 April at the UCL Institute of Child Health in London. You can buy tickets here.