How to make sure your opinion is heard at uni
Imagine being threatened with violence, told your office would be destroyed and then getting death threats, just because you’re a Tory supporter. This was the case for the president of a Conservative Association at a leading university – and happened just because he asked his opponent, the president of the Labour Association for a healthy debate. There have been a number of recent articles in the press highlighting the struggles that Conservative-supporting students have. This is not only with expressing their opinions but at some universities, attempts have been made, in some cases successfully, to completely silence them.
But many universities are trying to tackle the problem, SOAS University of London being one of them. The university prides itself on having a strong reputation as a place that promotes uncensored opinion and freedom of debate.
SOAS Registrar Paula Sanderson says: “Despite some public criticism, we vigorously defend freedom of speech and indeed have had many controversial guest speakers here. We think universities should be places of debate and discussion and we strive to reflect the fundamental belief that open and uncensored debate can and must take place. We strongly believe this encourages students to think for themselves and to form their own opinions.”
What’s been happening?
Former Conservative chancellor, Lord Nigel Lawson, who served in Thatcher’s cabinet, said
suppression of freedom of speech in universities is "one of the greatest problems of our time". Speaking publicly, he added that political correctness was a “great blight of our age” adding that students were getting their way because of supine university authorities.
Safe space and no platform movements are rife across universities now which can see speakers deemed in any way controversial or offensive banned from appearing.
He said: “The problem comes from political correctness to some extent, which is the great blight of this age. A view is either politically correct or not, and if it is not, then it should not be heard.”
He went on: “This is happening throughout the universities today, where it is pushed by students – they may not be the majority of students but they are very vocal and they have their way because of totally supine university authorities.”
The concept of a safe space has been heavily criticised but many universities have embraced it and say it creates an environment that is supposed to protect students from negative discrimination and hostility by not exposing to them to subjects or speakers they may find offensive. It has been described in the press and multiple student publications as a ‘fundamentally flawed concept’ because it’s believed it creates a form of discrimination and exclusion in itself by actively forbidding those who hold different viewpoints.
Paula at SOAS says: “Our position has always been, and remains, that SOAS is a place which promotes freedom of debate and we have a long tradition of hosting speakers from all over the world. We have not closed down or stopped events taking place due to the political view or beliefs of speakers. “
How you can get your voice heard, whatever your opinion
Getting involved in community politics, joining a debating society or, if you’re brave enough, making public speeches will help you learn to persuade others and help you master constructing a well-informed argument. As well as giving you confidence it may well help you when it comes to applying for jobs as it will look excellent on your CV and is the sort of thing future employers are looking for.
You’ll also meet lots of different people and be exposed to a greater audience of people. You will have the chance to interact with a wide-range of culturally diverse people either like you or completely different, so why restrict yourself?
Paula adds: “We support the right of SOAS student societies to invite speakers and host debates on contentious and difficult issues, as SOAS has been publicly doing throughout the academic year. What we do not do is thereby endorse or support the views being expressed. We pride ourselves on our diversity and we know that this will sometimes create tensions and disagreements.”
SOAS top tips on debating
Wow your audience. You need to present a problem that needs fixing, reveal the root of that problem, explain your solution and explain why your solution would work.
- Keep your cool. While a good debate should involve a clash, this doesn’t mean you should be foaming at the mouth when challenged – don’t raise your voice, improve your argument. It’s fine to be passionate but keep a lid on the emotional outbursts. By focusing on the elements of your side of the argument, you’re more likely to keep your cool when the debate heats up.
- Be prepared for personal attacks and identify them, don’t ignore them. Your audience will be impressed by a classy reply rather than a personal retaliation – just give a brief explanation of why your opponent is incorrect.
- Make sure you know your subject inside out – you’ll need an in-depth understanding of your topic because you could face a rigorous Q&A session. Knowing your stuff is just the half of it – you’ll need to be prepared for anything that comes at you but you’ll also have to combat the opposition.
Find out more about studying at SOAS here