The Chilling Attempts to Interfere with Universities Are an Assault On Democracy

Universities are forums for intellectual pursuit, the campaigns against this are a chilling warning about the state of our democracy.


There was a time when right wing parties and publications wanted nothing to do with universities. They didn’t want universities under the state, they wanted students to pay their own way and “get in the real world”. It’s that attitude that brought us the trebling of student fees and the marketisation of higher education. Now, though, the state and media want nothing more than to control what happens within universities.

Universities are forums for intellectual debate. Yet, the media and government are interfering to try to suppress student unions and to make sure that universities offer platforms to unqualified bigots with no expertise in the areas to wish to preach hate on. Transphobes shouldn’t be offered platforms at universities. They’re not qualified to speak. They may feel passionately about the subject, but that doesn’t give them either lived experience or expertise. Universities wouldn’t pick a random person off the street to speak on rocket science and nor should they with any other area. Intellectualism and progressiveness should be at the heart of any educational facility. There are freedom of speech laws in this country but they do not automatically guarantee people to a platform. Transphobes aren’t being censored (not when they’re endlessly on the BBC and getting New Statesman columns). It’s like complaining on censorship for not being invited to a party. There’s a right to speak, there’s no right to a megaphone or for people to listen.

This attempt by government and media forced to quash intellectualism and informed debate is now being extended to the subject of Brexit. This isn’t just about trying to upset students who overhwelmingly supported Remain – it is far more alarming than that.

In the same way that The Daily Mail caused an outcry for running headlines saying “crush the saboteurs” and then also depicting judges, and running the headline “enemies of the people” for a ruling on Brexit, their latest story on “Remainer universities” deserves outrage.

The Daily Mail is trying to interfere with what academics teach their students. This is about the suppression of education more than the suppression of free speech. It is an attempt to suppress intellectual debate in the name of patriotism. The story by The Daily Mail was prompted by Chris Heaton-Harris, Conservative MP, asking universities to provide a list of names of tutors who make reference to Brexit and to state what they were teaching.

Universities cannot be tools of the state. Then our higher education system would become nothing more than an outlet of state propaganda. Our generation is fond of a Harry Potter reference so here it goes – why did Voldemort want control of Hogwarts? To brainwash students to do what he wanted and to suppress activists. Transphobes and Leavers are playing the same game; crush intellectualism by crying about their supposed silencing.

“Universities cannot be tools of the state”

We live in Trump times, an ironically, arguably Brexit started it (a position Hillary Clinton agrees with). Brexit and Trump were based on movements that saw outright undeliverable promises being spun as guaranteed. £350 million for the NHS. A border wall with Mexico. Reason and debate were thrown out to pander to a rhetoric of hate. It stirred people, it brought out bigotry and it shifted the media into a time where false equivalence was conceded to rather than honouring balanced debate. We heard about emails as being as evil as alleged sexual assault. We heard that Remain were doom mongering, when they offered arguments of serious consideration compared to Leave’s outrageous and undeliverable promises.

Brexit inspired a culture where all opinions are equal and valid – no matter how wrong, outrageous or factually incorrect they are. It is no surprise that Leave supporting politicians and journalists would attack universities and seek to suppress what academics – experts in their fields – teach to students. We heard Gove publicly mock and try to silence experts during the Leave campaign after all. What is helping this attack on our very heartland of democracy are liberals. Liberals who balk at the idea of no-platforming people with no right to a platform. Liberals who cannot get their head around fighting tooth and nail for intellectualism, equality and progressive values.

Universities are hubs of opposition to patriotism because they encourage critical thinking. Leave are fundamentally opposed to this because they want the exit from Brexit to be as smooth as possible, and for their to be no resistance. Stifling intellectual debate then fits with their agenda, but it asks serious questions about the state of our democracy and the role of our media outlets.

We’ve seen Tory fears about students since the election. They’re scared students will put Corbyn in office and stop Brexit. They’re coming for our universities yet again just like they did with student fees. This time, we won’t let them.

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