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Freedom of speech project sees student go global

Freedom of expression is a hot topic on university campuses the world over, with institutions struggling to strike a balance between open debate and respecting the wishes of students.

A raft of high-profile ‘no-platform’ incidents in recent years, in which speakers have seen invitations withdrawn and events suddenly cancelled, have ensured the issue has remained firmly in the spotlight, with views seemingly hardening on both sides of the debate.

But are students as opposed to debate and challenge on campus as the headlines would have us believe?

To find out more, Camille Lalevée, a European studies student, agreed to take part in a research project on freedom of expression launched by the Policy Institute at King’s.

The project saw Camille participate in workshops with students in London and at the University of Melbourne, in Australia, before presenting her findings to a roundtable of vice-chancellors from around the world.

Camille’s journey began with the workshops. Groups of students were first asked to discuss the results of a wide-ranging survey carried out by the Policy Institute, which collected the views of more than 2,000 students and 2,000 members of the public on freedom of expression.

Among the headline results of the survey, students were shown to be far more concerned about freedom of expression in wider society (51 per cent) than in their own university (22 per cent).

The study also revealed that only a minority (12 per cent) of students said they had very or fairly often heard of incidents where freedoms have been restricted in their institutions and most were broadly supportive of how their university supports freedom of expression.

However, there were signs of a chilling effect, with some students (25 per cent) reluctant to express their views for fear of repercussions.

Addressing these points, both the King’s College and Melbourne workshops were structured along the same lines. Students were asked a range of questions, from how organised they usually were in planning their holidays to their opinion on whether or not freedom of expression was threated in the UK today.

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Camille, who studies in the Department of European and International Studies, said: “For their first exercise, students were asked to give feedback on the [Policy Institute] report they had read. This feedback had to be structured around three questions: What surprised them the most? What was stating the obvious? What else would they want to know that was not covered in the report.

“The answers were written on Post-It notes which were then organised in clusters. Students then participated in a world cafe, to debate three topics mentioned in the report: violence, extreme views and safe space. This allowed us to see the different understanding one can have of what these key concepts mean.”

Students also had the opportunity to write short policy recommendations, addressed to four different actors: university leadership, student union leadership, government/regulators, and individual students.

This process was then repeated with students in Melbourne, with Camille flying out to Australia to take part in the discussions.

So what did the workshops reveal?

“The answers given by students had both similarities and differences,” said Camille. “Students in London and Melbourne were mostly surprised that 26 per cent of the students questioned in the survey found it was okay to use violence to answer extreme views. The left-leaning nature of universities and the idea that freedom of expression is a non-issue were also commonly accepted by a majority of the students.

“Moreover, all students would have liked to see a more detailed analysis of the impact religion, culture or social background can have on such issues. Finally, all students were eager to know more about the university policy on freedom of expression, what form it takes and how it is implemented.”

The two groups of students had different perceptions of the role universities should play, though, with London students pointing to the bureaucracy of both the university leadership and the student union as a perceived threat to their freedom of speech. All students agreed, however, that more concise and accessible definitions of key terms such as ‘extreme views’ and ‘safe space’ were necessary to better understand the issue and tackle it.

Having helped lead the workshops, Camille then joined a small group to present the Policy Institute data, her conclusions and recommendations to a roundtable of vice-chancellors, who represented universities from the USA, UK, New Zealand and Australia.

Though a daunting end to her journey, Camille believes the process helped shed light on just how students across the globe really feel about the issue of freedom of expression and how it impacts their educational experiences.

She said: “Whilst it was challenging to present in front of so many senior university leaderships, with a lot of experience in the education system, it allowed me to acknowledge how issues such as academic freedom could be in tension with the promotion of freedom of speech.”

And her conclusion?

“The promotion of freedom of expression at university is a process that can be challenging for both students and universities but attending both workshops, as well as the roundtable in Melbourne, allowed me to get a better understanding of how such policies were implemented in universities and which actors and issues were at stake,” she said.

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