Universities should not protect students from ‘uncomfortable’ views by stopping debates, regulator warns

'We should be teaching students to deal with discomfort, not run away from it'

Eleanor Busby
Education Correspondent
Tuesday 06 November 2018 19:56
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Top ten universities in the UK for student satisfaction, according to Times Higher Education

The higher education regulator has criticised universities for shutting down alternative points of views on campus to make students feel “comfortable”.

Sir Michael Barber, chair of the Office for Students (OfS), has called on universities in the UK not to avoid certain debates in seminars and lectures to “protect students” from difficult ideas.

Students need be empowered to take points of views that are “minority” or “unpopular” and they should be taught how to “deal with discomfort, not run away from it”, he said.

Speaking at a conference on Tuesday, Sir Michael told leaders in the sector that one US university had a rule that “no student shall offend anyone on university property” – which he described as “absurd”.

He said that approach was “the road to disaster”.

Sir Michael said: “Universities need to be places where the pursuit of truth is not a platitude but a daily quest. It’s about what happens in seminars and lectures, the way in which unpopular ideas are debated.

“There is a tendency to think that students need to be protected from these ideas that may make them feel uncomfortable.”

But he told university leaders at the event in London: “We need to be active in our defence of freedom of speech and we should be teaching students to deal with discomfort, not run away from it.”

Sir Michael called on universities to create an atmosphere where students are exposed to diverse views, argument and debate in the classroom. “Somebody sitting at the back that may be reluctant to join you encourage them. You create opportunities for people to have vigorous debate,” he said.

Speaking at Wonkfest, Sir Michael also suggested that the “safe space” movement – originally intended to make vulnerable groups feel secure – did not help encourage freedom of speech when taken “too far”.

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Sam Gyimah, universities minister, who spoke at the same event, also warned that safe-space policies had “evolved into something completely different”.

The minister said: “We can’t have the entire university as a safe space where certain views are welcome and certain views are not welcome.”

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