Be it no-platform policies, controversial leadership or moral panics about their behaviour, students have a way of dominating the news. Are they too precious and mollycoddled? Are they drinking too much, or not enough? Do they represent the end of free speech as we know it?
They’re grouped together as a homogenous monolith, but ‘students’ are, by their very nature, transient. Classes change every year, obviously. And for all the time freshers week leaflets spend on baked bean and beer gags, those with the most at stake in debates around so-called student culture might just be the people we’ve heard from least.
The first years of 2016 weren’t all living under rocks but were, on average, 15 years old when “Blurred Lines” was banned by student unions around the country, 13 when the vote passed in the House of Commons that would lead to the fee cap rising to £9,000 per year, and school pupils during the controversial election of current NUS president Malia Bouattia. I spoke to freshers around the UK to gauge their views on the debates and controversies that circulated before their time, to see how much ideas from safe spaces to lad culture even matter to them now.
Justin, University of Oxford, on banning speakers
There are thousands of people at university and it’s impossible to find someone that everyone agrees with. Just because some people don’t agree doesn’t mean others should be deprived of the right to listen to a speaker. Certainly some people shouldn’t be allowed to speak at universities, but only in extreme cases: the KKK, the Westboro Baptist church, etc. But divisive political figures – Donald Trump, for example – have enough of a following that it’s actually worthwhile to bring them onto campus.
You have to judge things by their time and context. Fifty years ago the consensus was different. They were in the right to hear speakers that, for example, had racist views. Because if, at the time, it’s believed that this person is not completely unpopular, they should definitely be allowed to speak. Saying to someone, “you can’t come here to speak,” because you disagree with their views only means that you’re worried they might be right.
Sekai, Swansea University, on safe spaces
If people haven’t experienced racism or whatever I can sort of see why they don’t understand – but I think they don’t realise that safe space actually just means somewhere where people who aren’t as lucky can speak freely too. It’s not so different from anti-discrimination or equality policies which I hope people would not object to.
I don’t think safe space at university shields you from the ‘real world’ because I’ve already experienced racism and stuff, it’s just the university saying it’s not OK here. It lets people who have maybe been endangered before feel valued to contribute properly. If universities are meant to be for debate and new ideas like everyone says, then you have to make sure that all different types of people can join in.
Alice, University of Nottingham, on lad culture
I definitely think lad culture exists. I went to a girls’ school but as soon as I went to college and now uni, you can see it in the way people act – aggressive comments to girls in clubs, quite sexually motivated things. I’m a lesbian and everyone I’ve met so far has been really accepting. But we’ve gone to a few gay bars and some boys will say, “I don’t want to go to a gay bar, I don’t want to get hit on,” and you’re there with all your female friends thinking, well that’s what we have to deal with every day.
A lot of girls I know see it the same as me: you don’t want to instigate it. If a guy comes up to you and says something aggressive, you can only laugh and walk away. You can rant to friends but most people just have that attitude that, “Yeah, it’s horrible, but there’s nothing you can do about it – it’s not going to change.”
If anything did happen to me, I think I could confide in my uni. But I wouldn’t go back to the club, I wouldn’t say anything, I probably wouldn’t wear the same outfit. On nights out this week I’ve looked at the outfits I’ve been putting together and thought, hmm, I don’t really know these people very well, I’d better not wear that just yet, if it’s a bit too revealing.
Erin, University of Glasgow, on trigger warnings
I think trigger warnings are important because lecturers should be able to cover controversial issues in their work, but universities also have a duty of care to protect their students. The issue isn’t offence, it’s about topics that could disrupt someone’s mental wellbeing. Obviously in an essay or something you’d have to engage with all different viewpoints but it’s important that people are prepared.
I hate the argument that students are wrapped in cotton wool. It falls apart when you see studies of how terrible student mental health is. You have to question why; is it because academic institutions don’t have great care policies there to protect students?
The wider world doesn’t have a responsibility of care to you but universities do. In the real world you can choose which situations to be in but at uni if you’re covering a topic you don’t really have a choice, so a warning is definitely good.
Amy, SOAS, on drinking culture
I don’t drink, but I’m at a diverse university where a lot of people don’t drink for religious or cultural reasons, so there’s lots of stuff I can do that doesn’t involve alcohol, and that was one reason why I chose to come here.
I’m open with people, I tell them I’m teetotal, and often they’ll say ‘oh I don’t want to drink too much either, I need to concentrate on work.’ Sometimes people actually see it as a relief that they don’t have to drink with you.
I think there’s a lot of pressure. I know someone who teaches, and she waits to find out what night Carnage will be on that year, and plans her timetable so there’s no teaching the next day. They’ve had years with lessons the morning after and people just wouldn’t turn up or they were still drunk. I don’t want to go out until 4AM the night before lectures, even if I’m not drinking. I think it’s because I feel quite appreciative of the fact that we’re being allowed to study and manage our own workload, which is a privilege compared to sitting in an office 9 to 5 or something.”
Harry, Newcastle University, on the NUS
I think as an organisation the NUS are outdated in not condemning their leader for antisemitism. You began to see universities disaffiliate. The NUS does some good things, though. A union that unites around causes is important, as it did when the Education Maintenance Allowance was cut. To actually go on a march and be able to say “we represent however many students” is a really powerful thing. But it’s got to make sure it doesn’t become so political that it isolates different groups.
I would happily support them again if they dealt with the leadership. Not everyone in NUS believes those things and some people condemned it, but the fact that Malia Bouattia remained meant that, as an organisation, they’ve said yes to those views. I think that’s wrong.