Picked up by papers as diverse as the Daily Mail and the Huffington Post, King’s College London- a hugely respected global university, has found itself drawing the ire of many. Recently, it was discovered that the university hires ‘safe space marshals’ to prowl the rows when external guest speakers with the potential to be ‘controversial’ came to speak. Their job is essentially to ensure that the speaker doesn’t say anything ‘offensive’ that might upset audience members, and will ask them to leave if they dare breach any rules. At events that they attend, posters are put up to announce that the place is a safe space. For their sacrifice, these boys and girls are paid £12 an hour, and also get perks like free yoga classes and gifts on their birthdays.
Though they have apparently being hiring for a while, it arrived at Fleet Street after the revelation that they were brought in to watch Jacob Rees-Mogg speak to the university’s Conservative Association. Mogg himself admitted with a chuckle that controversy is not unknown to him at a recent Question Time, but one hardly imagines that he is an extremist of any kind (well maybe Momentum would disagree). The event did not seem to cause any problems, thanks to the hard work of the five marshals who enjoyed their living wage. Mogg did criticise the event later, like any sane person, by saying safe spaces should not be encouraged at universities and that ideas should be challenged. Of course, King’s seemed to disagree somewhat.
Firstly, what an absolute waste of money. As tuition fees are higher than they have been in British history, students expect more and more if universities insist that they are necessary, we need to properly see results. Most students want that in terms of timetabling, especially in humanities subjects were one never seems to have anything. Otherwise, we expect mental health provisions to be excellent considering youth mental health statistics, or things like better facilities or upgrades of university-owned accommodation. Instead, students are getting paid to police speakers to ensure they don’t offend precious sensibilities. We can commend students for getting jobs, but can we commend KCLU for paying for something so unnecessary? When a student pays £9K a year for at least three years, they do so with the expectation that they will receive a world-class education, excellent facilities and welfare for when they are needed. Instead, their fellow classmates will receive £12 an hour, as well as the perks that they are kindly given. Every student bemoans the purchasing choices of their university, but this one is definitely more justified.
Secondly, the subjectivity of ‘controversial’ is a huge factor in this. The previous year, marshals attended an event regarding Israel, an ever contentious issues on our campuses. The speakers, pro-Israeli students, had chairs thrown at them amongst other things, intimidating them for their viewpoint. The Israeli Society reported they felt fear, and did not feel protected by the marshals. This, it seems, shows how the marshals want to protect the audience over the speakers, even though the protesters were more demonstrators. If these marshals are there, should they not protect the safety of the speakers? Should there not be a safe space for speech? It seems as though that this is not going to happen. We must know that what is offensive to one is offensive to another. Of course, there are certain things the vast majority are going to think are wrong- things like calling for gays to be hanged, for rape apologists, though media reports have showed people like this are allowed on some campuses. A joke to somebody could be deeply offensive to another, something horrendous to someone could just be eyebrow raising to another. We live in a culture of getting offended, so an innocuous comment by a speaker- whether it’s Mogg, Diane Abbott or anybody else, can mean different things to different people.
Also, let’s just discuss how monumentally stupid the entire thing is. First of all, the notion that a group of adults need to be protected from opinions that may be opposite from their own is quite frankly the most offensive thing. Yes, students have a certain reputation, but they are still adults. Many have jobs, they live away from home and yes, they are legally adults with everything that comes with it. At eighteen, the mind is still somewhat impressionable but you’ve got to give us credit in that many are steadfast in our beliefs, whether you agree with them or not. It almost seems like they want to be offended on our behalf. Yes, there are always those vocal professional ‘offendees’ who cannot even think about an opinion other than theirs without crying, but many Tories would listen to Jeremy Corbyn peacefully and many Labourites can listen to Boris Johnson without getting worked up. I think the marshals would probably look a little silly if they ran over to a student and put their hands over their ears, and I doubt the students would want that. I doubt that most students are going to be influenced too much by an offending opinion, and one hopes that they have the good sense to challenge anything that they agreed with.
Also, this is clearly violating free speech. If the speaker is found to be offensive, they could be asked to leave. Is this not going to stop people coming if they fear they will be found offensive? This will limit the quality and quantity of guests, many of whom will provide interesting opinions that encourage debates that make universities thrive. In a recent case, the outspoken conservative Peter Hitchens was invited to Liverpool University to make a speech. Hitchens refused the terms he was given, but had the initiative to stand outside on a box after another private venue was cancelled. That is not going to be possible for every speaker. A balance of opinions is essential at university. Students learn more than just English Lit or engineering; they learn life skills, skills that will make them the best workers and citizens. If they are not exposed to different opinions, those who do not otherwise seek them out will not be given a wealth of options in which to learn from and form opinions, opinions that they might otherwise disagree with. Britain is a great democracy, yet its universities have become soft touch.
Many readers know that universities can be like this, that their opinions may be shouted down. Of course, we can expect it from other students sometimes (thankfully rarely), but we should in no way expect the university to do this. Without challenging this, it will not stop. Thankfully, we’ve seen the amazing student of KCL prove that they’re more than just academically intelligent, but let’s remember that others won’t be.
Don’t be that person.