Universities: bastions of conformism

Students once embraced the freedom to be adults. Now they have become ban-happy self-regulators afraid of growing up.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams

Topics Politics

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When news emerged last week that two students from the London School of Economics had been banned from wearing ‘Jesus and Mo’ cartoon t-shirts on a stall at the university’s freshers’ fair, it was only the most recent act of censorship carried out by students’ unions.

At the latest count, the students’ unions at six universities have banned the song ‘Blurred Lines’ from being played in their buildings. In the past few months alone, Derby University students have banned the UKIP candidate for Derbyshire police and crime commissioner from speaking in debates; the University of East Anglia has banned the showing of rugby and cricket matches sponsored by NatWest bank in the union bar; Lancaster University students’ union has banned ‘lads’ mags’ from the campus shop; and students at Essex University look set to ban Starbucks from their campus.

While a few students may challenge what has been termed a ‘war against free speech on campus’, or argue that students’ unions are not meant to be the moral arbiters of their members, what’s really noticeable is the louder clamour for more bans and increased censorship. The outgoing president of a consortium of students’ unions based in Medway in Kent has criticised the absence of a ban on political and religious extremists; and the Lancaster ban on lads’ mags has been labelled as not going nearly far enough in the perceived battle against sexism on campus.

It seems that far from revelling in the freedom of having left school and home behind, students are quick to impose new sets of restrictions upon themselves. This goes beyond socialising and shopping and impacts upon the academic realm too: research conducted at one university suggests 88 per cent of students were in favour of a requirement to make all students abide by a code of conduct and 82 per cent supported minimum attendance requirements with all the associated form-filling and register-taking. It seems that students want external monitoring and regulation because they don’t trust themselves to withstand the temptation to miss seminars or behave inappropriately in the lecture theatre. This lack of trust in themselves and each other is one reason why songs such as ‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘lads’ mags’ are described as ‘dangerous’ by those campaigning for bans: one can only assume that in their fevered imaginations it is only a ‘brave’ ban on such incendiary material that prevents mass rape on campus.

University students nowadays seem to consider themselves as children in need of protection from a threatening world – with their fellow students the biggest threat of all. Whereas in the not-too-distant past, students standing for union elections would have represented a major political party and felt the need to mention (at least some) nationally significant issues, today’s potential candidates represent only themselves and campaign for things such as increased security on campus, better lighting, more CCTV cameras and greater distribution of rape alarms. The aspiration of previous generations of students to have their political views taken seriously has been replaced by campaigns to be looked after better.

The language of the former Medway-consortium president is revealing: he describes it as ‘incredibly worrying’ that students have no ‘protection’ from ‘preachers of hate’ and that a ban would provide students with ‘a safety net’. Similarly, the national NUS Zero Tolerance Accreditation Scheme seeks to make university campuses ‘a safe space for women’. Both assume that students are vulnerable, in need of protection, and first and foremost seeking ‘safety’. These views are not widely challenged because students increasingly perceive themselves in these terms. Instead of arriving at university excited at the prospect of independence and optimistic about the challenges to come, many students seek an immediate return to the security of their school days.

A bizarre example of this trend is perhaps the nationwide popularity of the students’ union ‘School Disco’ event. At King’s College London, the event is advertised thus: ‘It may be the first day of your university life, but its [sic] time to dust of your school uniform.’ Students can party in rooms labelled ‘tuck shop’, ‘bike-shed’ and ‘playground’, all the while donning a school uniform. In their very first days away from home and at university, students are (however ironically) excitedly reminiscing about a school environment they left only a matter of weeks earlier.

When everyone from the UK prime minister David Cameron to the medical profession considers adolescence to extend to the age of 25, perhaps it’s understandable that students see themselves as in a prolonged-state of childhood. But significantly, universities do little to challenge such infantilisation and instead frequently reinforce the perception that students are children in need of looking after. Students are routinely offered advice and guidance on everything from making friends, health and wellbeing and managing money to study skills and note-taking. It is no longer assumed that 18-year-olds arrive at university capable of looking after themselves and ready to learn. Instead, they are cushioned at every turn from the need to accept responsibility for their lives and make adult decisions.

At universities today, attendance at lectures and seminars is made compulsory; reading lists are replaced by downloadable chapters; end-of-year exams are replaced by smaller, more frequent modular assessments with pre-determined learning outcomes. Here students are not accepting responsibility for their own learning; they are merely completing a set of structured tasks. There are many social and political trends that come together to result in the infantilisation of young people today – but universities should not reinforce these trends through treating students like schoolchildren. Then maybe students can begin to grow up, trust themselves and each other a bit more, and not feel the need to enforce bans for their own protection.

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. She is chairing the next spiked drinks event, Academic freedom in illiberal times, at the Grand Committee Room, Westminster on Monday 11 November. 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).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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