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Cultivating controversy … with civility

  • 6 June 2023
  • By Nyika Suttie

This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Nyika Suttie, Culture and Inclusion Training Officer at the University of Bath.

Much has been made of the Free Speech Act gaining Royal Assent. Meanwhile, institutions such as King’s College London (KCL) and organisations such as HEPI and WonkHE have been asking the same questions of students: what is their opinion on freedom of speech in universities, and do they really feel less empowered to speak their mind in the higher education environment? Here at the University of Bath, we have developed training which we hope will give students the confidence to have difficult discussions, and to encourage conflict with civility.

The themes in current research appear to show that the majority of students do not feel that freedom of speech is being hindered in higher education. However, the 2022 research from KCL reveals a growing minority of students feel their right to express controversial views is ‘very or fairly threatened’ – 34 per cent of students answered this way in 2022, in comparison with 23 per cent in 2019. This is a significant rise. When broken down by political viewpoint, 50 per cent of students felt those with traditionally Conservative views were reluctant to express them in the higher education environment. Findings from a 2022 HEPI report could offer some explanations for this – including a rising proportion of students proposing the banning of certain groups from campus, and 86 per cent supporting the NUS’s No Platform Policy.

A 2023 survey by WonkHE suggests a bigger issue has arisen – students do not feel confident to express their views within the academic environment in general.

In my role as Student Culture and Inclusion Training Officer, I deliver training to groups of students on topics such as unconscious bias, anti-racism, and consent, under the umbrella of our Be the Change Anti-Harassment campaign. When I was challenged to create training which responded to the Freedom of Speech Bill, I was conflicted at first. Could all views be expressed on campus without the risk of harassment or hate speech, the very thing against which we are campaigning? However, I considered that raising confidence amongst students to ‘speak their truth’ and enter controversial discussions with courage can only be a good thing.

My research took me to some surprising places. I started off looking to the United States (US) for inspiration, where many universities and organisations are part of a Civil Discourse movement, which aims to encourage discourse which ‘supports, rather than undermines the societal good’. Much of the imagery attached to the movement is red and blue, to echo the partisan political landscape in the US, and it is clear in its aims to lessen the divide between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to understanding each other’s opinions. In the United Kingdom, political discussion is not divided into such a binary divide, but there is still much to learn from this Civil Discourse Movement, including the tenet that good quality debate is key to understanding others’ points of view.

I then returned to more familiar ground, drawing heavily on a chapter by Arao and Clemens about ‘safe and brave spaces’ in the book The Art of Effective Facilitation: Reflections from Social Justice Educators. In this chapter, they posit ways that the expected rules for debate can be opened up to allow for civil and productive discussions by changing, for example, ‘agree to disagree’ to ‘controversy with civility’, and ‘don’t take things personally’ to ‘own your intentions and your impact’. These rules for a ‘brave space’ formed the basis of my rules for debate in my training.

Finally, I knew I needed to get out of my comfort zone and away from that which was familiar and comfortable for me. So, I joined the Heterodox Academy, an organisation where people often speak out against the social justice work I am employed to do. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Heterodox Academy Way for debate was sensible and level-headed, and in its own way echoed the ‘rules’ set out by Arao and Clemens. Most prominently, it asks the debater to consider the possibility that they may be wrong, and that their opponent might be right. A lesson we can all take into our debates and discussions.

The training session at Bath starts with some lighter topics for debate (pineapple on pizza is – of course – in there), and then settles into a discussion around students’ anxieties about voicing their opinions. Then, after a comparison of the social justice and Heterodox Academy rules, there is a debate on a controversial topic, chosen through a series of agree and disagree polls such as ‘the voting age should be lowered to 16’, with the one with the most partisan split being chosen. Finally, students are asked to reflect on the debate, their confidence levels, and what they will take from the training into the future.

Since launching Controversy with Civility, it has been the most popular training session, and the most in-demand by departments for cohorts of students. Students developing their confidence in debates, alongside the quality and civility, can only be a positive thing.

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