University Challenge

Woman’s Place UK welcomes the publication Freedom of expression: a guide for higher education providers and students’ unions in England and Wales about the importance of facilitating debate and discussion. This has been one of our key demands since our inception in September 2017.

During that time, we have organised 20 meetings all over the UK but, despite trying, have only successfully held one in a university venue because of the climate of fear that has developed surrounding discussions on sex and gender. The majority of our meetings have been subject to serious harassment, threat and intimidation.

We have always held that the failure of academic and civic institutions to facilitate this discussion has discriminated against women; we have been very concerned at the silencing of women’s voices and the campaigns of intimidation and abuse that such meetings have been subject to. Very often, these campaigns have been orchestrated by university students even when the venue was not on university grounds such as in Oxford.

oxford protest

University students protest a Woman’s Place meeting in Oxford, April 2018

We are pleased to see this guidance supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the National Union of Students (NUS) Universities UK, the Charity Commission for England and Wales, the Office for Students, Independent HE, Guild HE, Commission for Countering Extremism and the Home Office and to have these organisations endorse these key principles:

“Higher education providers should always work to widen debate and challenge, never to narrow it.

“Freedom of expression is a key part of the higher education experience. Sharing ideas is crucial for learning, and allows students to think critically, challenge and engage with different perspectives.

We are particularly pleased that the NUS are supporting this guidance and hope that this signals a change in their attitude to meetings organised by women.

We have had to write twice to the NUS about activities and publications in their name that we believe to be both slanderous and libellous. We look forward to seeing the NUS actively support the facilitation of discussions and debate and their condemnation of the abuse and threat that we and others have been subject to.

We are horrified at the campaigns that have been waged against gender critical academics and call on all universities, the University & College Union (UCU) and the NUS to make it clear that universities have been established as places to explore and test ideas and that they will support staff in this pursuit.

Unless people are engaged in actions that incite hate or cause violence against someone, they should be allowed to express their opinions and others should be allowed to respectfully challenge them.

We are therefore pleased to note this statement in the guidance:

“HEPs must protect the freedom of expression of academics and staff. Student complaints and protests should not result in HEPs imposing limits on course content or speaker events organised by lecturers.”

We would prefer that our critics come into our meetings and be part of the discussion. Sometimes this has happened but more often they have preferred to protest outside: that is their prerogative.

What is unacceptable is mobbing a venue, bombarding it with harassing phone calls (often peddling misinformation or lies), harassing/threatening attendees or drowning out the voices of the women within (including survivors of sexual violence) by banging pots and pans in order to get a meeting shut down or to terrify women into not attending.

edinburgh protest

Sisters Uncut protest a meeting organised by Woman’s Place & Women’s Spaces Scotland,  Edinburgh, February 2018

It is ironic that at a time when women are being told they cannot have discussions on issues of material concern to them on university campuses, some men are learning that they can be abusive and threatening towards women with impunity. The case at Warwick where male students threated female students with rape only to have had their exclusion overturned is very worrying.

What message is this sending female students at that university?

What message is it sending to women everywhere?

We unequivocally condemn the actions of these male students and are glad to see that Warwick has now confirmed that they will not be returning. However, we are not confident that this a decision that has been properly made by the University itself or that its procedures are fit for purpose.

Universities must demonstrate their commitment to the rights of women to study and live free from fear of abuse, threat or violence.

We will be approaching universities in the coming year to seek venues for our meetings.

We look forward to seeing the academic community including the University & living up to its responsibilities as laid out in the new guidance, welcoming us to their campus and helping us reinvigorate the spirit of enquiry and rigorous examination of ideas.

5th February 2019