Free speech watchdog appoints panel members who campaigned for ‘no platforming’ policies

The Telegraph, 8th January 2018

A student panel which will advise the new universities watchdog on ensuring free speech is upheld has appointed two members who have campaigned for forms of “no platforming” on campus.

The Office for Students (OFS) has announced who will sit on its 13-strong student panel, which it said will play a “key role” in advising the regulator’s board members.

One panel member is Luke Renwick, president of Sheffield Hallam students’ union, who introduced a “no platforming” policy at his own university in 2014.

Another is Benjamin Hunt, the former president of King’s College London (KCL) students’ union, who campaigned for an image of the former Archbishop of Canterbury to be removed from the university due to his views on gay marriage.

KCL was accused of giving in to “gay-stapo” campaigners after taking down Lord Carey of Clifton’s image from its alumni “wall of fame” on its building on The Strand in December 2016.

When he was running for the position of the university’s LGBT officer, Mr Hunt said in his manifesto that “King’s has awarded homophobes, such as Lord Carey…with privileges”, as he vowed to campaign to have the image removed.

The Universities Minister Jo Johnson used a Boxing Day speech to say that students must not be shielded from views they disagree with under the banner of “safe spaces” and “no platforming” policies.

He said that the OFS will crack down on universities that fail to adequately safeguard free speech. The watchdog will have new powers to punish universities which fall short, which could include fines or even being deregistered, which would effectively render them unable to operate.

Dr Joanna Williams, a university lecturer in higher education, said that the appointment of students who have been involved with campaigns for “no-platforming” serves to “undermine” the the OFS’ pledges to uphold free speech.

“It shows that promises are half-hearted and they haven’t really got the gumption to carry through with the rhetoric of supporting free speech on campus,” she said.

Dr Williams, who is author of the book Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity, added: “These kinds of appointment show that it is student satisfaction that will win out at the end of the day.”

Another OFS panel member is Shakira Martin, president of the National Union of Students and a self-confessed former drug dealer who did not go to university.

Ms Martin, who was elected president last April, has described how being involved in dealing drugs taught her a host of important skills for the world of work such as business acumen, confidentiality, data protection, customer service and mathematics.

Monday’s announcement about the OFS student panel members follows a row over the appointment of Toby Young as an OFS board member. Mr Young, a journalist and free schools pioneer, faced after critics unearthed lewd comments about women he had posted on social media, which he has since deleted.

The Prime Minister was forced to intervene, warning that he will be sacked from the role if he makes any more sexist comments.

On Monday Mr Johnson defended Mr Young after shadow equalities minister Dawn Butler led an urgent question in the Commons about his appointment to the board.

Mr Johnson praised Mr Young as “an eloquent advocate of free speech”, adding that he has “apologised unreservedly” for his past comments.

He added: “Be in no doubt, if he or any board member were to make these kind of inappropriate comments in the future, they would be dismissed.”

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OFS, said she expects the student panel to “offer constructive advice”, adding that its “strength will be in the diverse range of opinions its members will be able to offer”.

She went on: “The panel will have an important role, advising the Office for Students on its student engagement strategy and taking a broader view of the experiences of students in the short, medium and longer term. “We don’t expect or assume that all panel members will agree with all Government or Office for Students higher education policy.”

Mr Hunt declined to comment, and Mr Renwick said: “Sheffield Hallam Student Unions No-Platform Policy passed through a majority democratic vote from multiple members of Union Council. This policy simply codifies our stance that we will not tolerate racism on campus through reiterating our statutory duty to protect our students against hate crime.”

The OFS, which is designed to ensure students get value for money and are treated fairly by the university system, came into force this week and will gain legal powers in April.


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