Last Wednesday in the Palace of Westminster, two important people from Sussex University appeared in front of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Adam Tickell is the Vice Chancellor and Frida Gustafsson is the President of the Students Union. They had been invited to come and talk to a small group of MPs and Lords about the issue of Freedom of Speech on the Campus of the University. The transcript from the discussion can be found here, it reveals a number of interesting elements. One was the decision by a UKIP MEP, Bill Etheridge who had wanted to come to speak to people on the Campus but refused to do so when the Students Union placed two conditions on his attendance. The reason for the conditions was that the Students Union is a Charity as are all other Student Unions and therefore they are bound to follow the charity guidance to be non political as demanded by the coalition Government as part of their lobbying bill, passed several years ago. The condition The first was that along with Bill that an Independent Chair would be invited along with someone with alternative views come to Sussex University when two conditions were attached to his attendance. The first was that “if there was to be a debate we wanted an independent chair and someone with another opinion to debate Bill Etheridge. If there was to be a Q&A with Bill, we wanted to know what was going to be spoken about” The reason for this second element was that research carried out by the Students Union identified things Mr Etheridge has said in other places which left them concerned for his attendance on their campus.
One of the concerns expressed by Frida was that in demanding freedom of speech on University Campuses, as expressed by Jo Johnson in December, this places the Students Unions in a very difficult position, as such freedom runs the risk of compromising the demands placed by this Government on charities to ensure that no political bias is shown or articulated by charities. At the end of the session Frida made this final point, let us hope that the Government or Parliament will respond!
“I were to idealise the guidance and codes of practice that we are given, there would be a lot about the character that I would change. Student unions are just trying to figure out the right balance in a very complex situation, and more guidance in terms of best practice would be really useful. It would also be useful if government policy and Charity Commission policy did not contradict each other, which they literally do in terms of whether or not we should provide a platform to speakers. It is also worth saying that this current concern about freedom of speech on campus, while it has always been an issue, does not really seem to be based on facts or evidence. When I go back to talk to my students, freedom of speech, which the media is focusing on, is not really what they care about. You mentioned the OfS earlier; it would be wonderful if the OfS could be the Office for Students, not the office for what politicians think we should be worrying about. Students care about the mental health crisis, for example, and it would be worth focusing on that.”