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Supporting students’ unions to make informed decisions

Friday 02-10-2015 - 11:38

Today I am starting to lay out my agenda for the year. My focus is on a fair, free and equal education system. Part of achieving that is making sure NUS is in the room when decisions are made on policy, to push for the rights of the students we represent.

Nowhere is this more urgent and important than in supporting students’ unions to tackle difficult and complicated decisions over the government’s recent Counter-Terrorism and Security Act.

Institutions, academics, societies and students often invite external speakers to talk and ensure a wide variety of topics are discussed for debate, learning and thinking on campus. Students’ unions have always worked to support this and develop students’ thinking and views.

But students’ unions have long been some of the only places where students can truly be themselves without fear or intimidation. That is why most students’ unions have policies which defend free speech, by tackling and calling out hate speech, violence, bullying and harassment.

We do this to ensure that everyone can debate and engage in a wide variety of views without intimidation. It’s to ensure people aren’t shut out.  But these policies have often been criticised by the government, academics and journalists. Thirty years ago in fact the government, under the guise of ‘protecting free speech’, was trying to legislate to stop organisations like ours being able to protect our members. But we have always stood firm: these policies are used to stop those who incite hatred or violence coming to students’ unions – often the only place on campus which is a safe space for students to be themselves.

Now we have a government legislating to watch and spy on what students are doing, yet still calling us out for limiting free speech. One minute we’re doing too much, the next we’re not doing enough to tackle hate speech and extremism.

The government can’t have it both ways.

This isn’t about not being offended – it is about keeping students safe.

Yet there are those who sit commenting in newspapers about how students need to hear these ‘views’ and ‘opinions’.

Well let me be frank.

I don’t think that Jewish students need to see more anti-Semitic comments to be ‘more aware’ of anti-Semitism. I don’t think that women need to have a ‘greater understanding’ of sexist and misogynist abuse to ‘realise’ that sexism exists. Black students don’t need ‘more exposure’ to abusive speech to ‘get’ racism. This is about protecting the only place that they have that is free from discrimination – places that we are very proud to have made exist.

The academic study of beliefs and views is essential and is one thing – having hate speakers inciting hatred and violence in students’ unions is another. External speakers’ policies and No Platform are policies created by students’ unions themselves and we support them in making informed decisions to protect themselves and their members.

So let’s get one thing clear; NUS is against terrorism and hate speech, that’s never been a question, but I believe the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act and Prevent are deeply flawed and we are seeing the consequences of that already.

Just last week we have seen more evidence of students being treated as criminals for simply trying to study. As a direct result of the government’s rhetoric we are seeing students targeted for reading books, or speaking frankly about politics. That damages our education system, it undermines the academic relationship between students and staff, and it works against its own aims.

But also because of the ambiguity of the government’s legislation we are seeing the decisions that students’ unions have to make being made more difficult.

We must ensure that students’ unions are supported in making these tough calls and their jobs are not complicated by vague laws that do not help meet the government’s own stated aims; to keep students safe.

That is why the attacks on NUS by the government are grandstanding at best. We have a right to campaign; and in our criticism of Prevent and the Counter-Terrorism Act we are simply reflecting back to ministers a series of legitimate concerns about the legislation.

Students’ unions and NUS are the organisations that have been consistently attacked by the government for doing the very work they are now saying we aren’t doing.

That will not help students and does not help students’ unions do their jobs.

I believe we have a responsibility to students’ unions to ensure they feel supported in making the right calls over hate speech and stopping extremism – and I want to work with students’ unions to make sure that is the case. This week I have made this clear to the organisation, to our officers and to the media.

NUS and students’ unions have got this right - it is David Cameron who has not.

NUS has guidance for students’ unions to help support them in dealing with external speakers’ policies, click here to read,  and has taken advice on behalf of our members over the Prevent duty and its impact on students’ unions - click here to read more

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