RUTH'S BLOG
Wake up Williamson: the Magdalen College controversy

It's the students who should decide whose picture is on the wall of their common room, not the education secretary

11 Jun 2021
BY RUTH SMEETH
Students outside Magdalen College in Oxford. Photo: Steve Parsons/PA Archive/PA Images

It sometimes feels like the world has gone insane. That not only have context and nuance gone out of the window but that issues which are of little, if any, importance end up leading the news and then are twisted and perverted to make them not only apparently relevant but also a matter for national discussion.

This week was definitely a case in point. Students at Magdalen College, Oxford, voted to have a picture of Her Majesty the Queen removed from their common room. They had in 2013 voted to put one up and in 2021 a new set of students decided that they wanted a different picture.

They did nothing wrong. They didn’t break the law. They had a vote (I’d argue that may align with British democratic values) and they then chose to exercise their rights to free expression in the UK. I may not agree with their choice of art – but they, like I, have the right to free expression.

You may have thought that this might have been covered in the university newspaper; it might have led to a few tweets and a little banter, maybe a joke on Have I Got News For You? You’d be wrong. The English secretary of state for education felt the need to condemn the students. It then became a leading story in the national news and op-eds and Twitter mobs duly followed.

A new story in the so-called “culture wars” emerged with various politicians and commentators attempting to suggest that this was the latest woke act to re-write British history. In my opinion it wasn’t – it was a picture of the head of state in a university common room. And it was literally an act of free expression by students (I think this might count as student politics) – which is completely legitimate.

The problem is however we are apparently living in a world where politics and events have to be viewed through the prism of these culture wars. Which is resulting in bad policy and bad politics.

The British Government is currently seeking to legislate to guarantee academic freedom, its stated rationale is to “…protect freedom of speech on campuses up and down the country, for students, academics and visiting speakers”.

In fact, when the new legislation was announced, the education secretary Gavin Williamson stated: “It is a basic human right to be able to express ourselves freely and take part in rigorous debate. Our legal system allows us to articulate views which others may disagree with as long as they don’t meet the threshold of hate speech or inciting violence. This must be defended, nowhere more so than within our world-renowned universities.

“Holding universities to account on the importance of freedom of speech in higher education is a milestone moment in fulfilling our manifesto commitment, protecting the rights of students and academics, and countering the chilling effect of censorship on campus once and for all.”

These are worthy sentiments, which I share. But given the actions this week by the members of the British government, I think we can all be a little confused by the inherent contradiction in their application of these values – that universities must guarantee freedom of thought, speech and debate but only if the Government thinks you’re right. That you can only debate or vote about things they agree with?  This isn’t just bad policy, it’s the worst kind of populist and divisive politics which undermines the very fight for free speech.

One of the founding principles of Index was the need to protect academic freedom – universities are cathedrals of learning and of intellectual curiosity. Their work shapes the world and provides new thinking every day – this needs to be protected and cherished. And it’s not for governments or politicians to try and define what is and isn’t acceptable free expression on campus – it’s for the institutions themselves and on this occasion, they chose to remove a picture. And fair play to them!

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