Students’ Union

Student Societies and the Problem With Controversial Invitations

Controversy is a strange thing. Simply knowing about the matter is enough to cause a reaction. Nothing needs to have occurred yet to cause offense. The implications and the possibilities can be enough.

Matters such as these that move into the wider public arena quickly draw attention. When people find out that something or someone controversial has been given a platform, opinions quickly divide. A mere invitation will cause offense, creating friction from the outset.

For student societies, that makes inviting any controversial public figure a tough job.

hot topic (photo by Enokson)

photo by Enokson – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Oxford Union, a debating society, recently came under fire for what looked like differing views in how to handle controversial invitations. Reactions surrounding invitations to Julian Assange and Nick Griffin appeared different. Assange was granted a platform, while Griffin was dismissed as not having even been properly invited. Independent student newspaper, Cherwell, quoted an Oxford Union spokesperson: “The Oxford Union does not wish to be associated with the BNP in any way whatsoever. We strongly disagree with their views.”

Assange, however, went on to speak in late January 2013. Former president of the Oxford Union, Izzy Westbury, explained to the Guardian why invitations like these are made:

“Inviting someone controversial – be it in a political sense, a religious one or, in the case of Assange, a legal one – is the best way of showing them for what they really are. When Assange is video-linked to the union, I would expect and encourage questions that challenge both his views and his actions. We should put him in an uncomfortable position – that is the condition of the invite.”

Writing for Cherwell, Alexander Rankine pointed out that such a vocal disapproval of one person and not another is contradictory:

“A Union invitation does not condone. Guests can be cross-examined. The Union is neutral. The idea of the Union adopting a political position or pursuing an agenda goes brazenly against this principle. Now it seems that the Union’s invitations are motivated by political opinions and specific agendas after all. And if that is really the case, then the Assange invitation starts to look more like a vote of support. The Union stops being neutral.”

An invitation is not an entirely neutral move unless you invite the entire population of the world on exactly the same grounds. Invitations arise due to some form of interest or controversy or debate or fame. The matter is complex, so cannot be neutral even if the intention was innocent.

What if a society was more explicit in explaining the reasoning behind an invitation as non-politically as it could? If that happened, the situation is still political, because reasons can be argued and people can disagree with the reasoning given.

Rankine handily wraps up the difficulty and the answer in a single sentence: “I always thought that the Union was meant to be a neutral debating platform.”

That term, “Neutral debating platform“. Can a debating platform ever be entirely neutral?

Debating occurs due to political matters. That’s the point of a debate. Be it a mild discussion, or an emotionally dividing battle, opinions are not all the same.

When Marine Le Pen, president of French political party Front National, spoke at the Cambridge Union, around 200 protesters gathered in opposition. One protester told The Cambridge Student:

“I don’t object to her speaking, but I think the important thing is we make it quite clear there’s opposition. The fact that you can get up and ask her a few questions afterwards is not really enough.”

The term ‘neutral debating platform’ comes into question based not only on the handing out of invitations, but also on the format of the debate.

Yet an invitation is placed in order to bring forth further debate, rather than endorse or congratulate (or, indeed, disagree or disparage) the parties involved. An opportunity for questions may not be seen as enough.

With so much to contend with, inviting a controversial figure cannot be completely neutral. Their views and actions are a necessary part of the package. It’s a big part of why their presence was requested in the first place. Those underlying reasons cannot be temporarily removed for logistical purposes.

Debating societies wouldn’t exist without some sort of controversy. That’s why an attempt to be neutral looks anything but to some. Politics may be intended only once everyone is gathered in the debating hall. However, some decisions are already political long before many realise they are political at all.

How would you handle controversial figures and controversial invitations?

Desperately Seeking a Narrative

Hello 2013, what stories do you have in store for us? And by ‘stories’, I mean that quite broadly. We live in stories all the time.

Toward the end of 2012, students from several universities took time out to pour drinks over themselves.

As you do.

Newcastle started it with milking. The process? Buy the milk, open the milk, pour the milk over your head.

That’s all well and good. However, Durham students argued, what would happen if you poured port over your head instead? Same situation, different drink.

The results weren’t much different, as it turns out, although the clothing stains were more difficult to get out in the wash.

First milking, then porting. Would it end with single malting, I wondered.

A bunch of freshers at St. Andrews quickly answered. And, no, it wasn’t fine whisky at all. It was Moet.

The results of a champagning experiment turned out to be very different to those from milking and porting. Why? Mainly because of the narratives chosen.

Stories are fantastic. Stories are useful for making a point. That’s why stories are used again and again. Narrative flow helps us all to understand what’s going on with minimum necessary effort.

Unfortunately, that narrative flow also helps to create stories that aren’t necessarily there in the first place.

Champagning at St. Andrews took on a much bigger story than Newcastle and Durham’s pouring attempts. From harmless joke to social commentary, from joining in to proving a point, from healthy rivalry to bitter competition, the story behind the video quickly grew much bigger than the video itself.

In fact, the video was taken down from YouTube and an apology was issued, yet the debate rumbled on. The milking and porting videos remain online.

Champagne apparently brings ideas of expense, snobbery, and special occasion. The concern, it seems, was that in associating St. Andrews with champagne and wastefulness would bring ideas of privilege, money, and further snobbery.

In this, baggage and associations enhanced the story further. This take on the narrative would give a negative spin on the university.

Both the Students’ Association and the university expressed unhappiness over the video. President, Freddie Fforde, said, “This video has undermined our image and undoes a lot of good we have done”. A representative from St. Andrews told student newspaper, The Stand, “In a time of austerity, this was at best insensitive, and at worst, lacking respect for the great many students, staff and townspeople in St Andrews who have for a long time been committed to tackling out of date stereotypes and raising more funds for bursaries and scholarships.”

Newcastle and Durham both had news coverage surrounding the pouring stunts. Yet St. Andrews gained more coverage after the subsequent response. And more opinion. It provided a new angle. And the more angles available, the easier it is to keep a story running.

The story is in the mind. It’s like asking whether or not you find the video funny. The choice is yours. The same goes for assessing the deeper meaning of its content.

We’ll never know exactly what motivated the champagning video and how it became what it did. Even the makers will look back differently to how things were in the beginning. It’s unavoidable; the true narrative is lost, because we aren’t documenting the story as it happens. That comes later and cannot be exact, even when we want it to be. And everyone involved will have had their own ideas.

What if St. Andrews students made exactly the same video with water instead of bubbly? Or whisky, as I’d suggested? Or a cocktail? Or an energy drink? Or something that wasn’t even a drink?

What if the champagne pouring video had been made by students from Oxford? Or Nottingham? Or Bath or Birkbeck or Birmingham? Or if the video hadn’t even been made by students at all?

What if the video was professionally produced for a TV audience instead? Or if the St. Andrews video had some sort of disclaimer attached to it? Or if students from different universities participated in the same prank together?

What if the St. Andrews students in the video had been from the most deprived backgrounds? Or they were people pretending to be St. Andrews students but were actually from another university?

There are no answers to any of these questions. The narratives would have changed, but there’s no way of telling how.

Taking down the champagning video and apologising for causing offense has added to the story. Subsequent responses also gave new breath.

My response to Milking was: ‘Meh,’ but I did mention it on Twitter.

My response to Porting was: ‘Oh dear. Let’s brace ourselves for loads of variations on this before it goes away.’ And I mentioned it again.

My response to Champagning was: ‘Right, the latest instalment. I can’t be bothered to point this out.’

This is my narrative to you, anyway. Those responses are not concrete and definitive facsimiles of my thoughts with no margin for error.

No matter what my responses were, here I am talking about everything in much greater detail now. And I wonder what stories will shape 2013.

I guess we won’t get to see any whisky-based antics, but do let me know if it happens. Not so much for the video, but so I can prepare for the narratives that arise from it.

Is your university experience disappointing?

After a year at uni, Amy McMullen says she is disappointed.

“…university comes with a whole set of issues that leaves many students thinking that it was never really worth it in the first place.”

photo by Kalexanderson

photo by Kalexanderson

Not everyone enjoys their uni experience. There are loads of possible reasons why this happens. Some may have a bad time while they’re there. Others will not have expected their time to be the way it turned out.

Amy explains that she and her friends believe that “if we had known what university was like before we applied, we would definitely think again and consider if it was worth it”.

She suggests that things could be different if she had taken an internship or some work experience for a year.

I hope things get better for Amy and that she feels more enthused as she moves through her degree. I wanted to make a few points and offer some advice in the hope that you can feel happy about your choices now and in the future.

I’ll start each point by referring to one of Amy’s comments in her piece.

“I pay the same tuition fees as someone who does a science subject, yet I have less than half the contact hours.”

Contact hours are not important.


At least, not important in the context of making university (and its cost) worthwhile. Contact hours aren’t a measure of worth or a measure of quality. What matters is ensuring you have enough contact time with academics.

If you don’t think you’re getting reasonable access to your tutors, have a friendly chat with them at first and see what you can all get out of it. Failing that, speak to your course rep or Students’ Union about your issue. If a large group of people on your course agree that you’re not getting enough contact time, work together on solving the problem rather than simply complaining amongst yourselves.

“Even more disheartening is realising that I could have learnt most of the syllabus content by spending a few days in the library and using a good search engine online.”

This is where ‘self-learning’ comes into play. My last post looked at taking a 4-year degree in a single year. Some of the top unis put entire courses online for the public to devour. You really could learn most of the syllabus content in a short time. And with library access, you can go deeper. Much, much deeper.

And that’s the point. I like to think of lectures and reading lists as starting points. Taking the analogy one step further, you’re given sign posts in these lectures so you don’t get hopelessly lost. Amy talks about agonising over another essay (yes, we’ve all been there), so learning the syllabus content is not the whole picture.

Everything you need is out there. A formal setting isn’t necessary for learning. A drive to find out more is necessary. If the basics only take a few days in the library and a bit of Googling, imagine where you can go from there.

photo by hatalmas

photo by hatalmas

“I often wonder if it would have been a better idea to get some hands on experience via internships or work experience full time this year.”

You still can. If you already know what career path(s) you’d like to pursue, that’s brilliant. You can find relevant part-time work while you study, use a different part-time role to develop transferable skills, or get involved online in your spare time. Get blogging, connect with people in the field, and join professional networks.

If you aren’t sure about future plans, work on what you enjoy. Many university experiences are useful long after graduation. And they don’t need to be related to the degree itself.

For instance, Amy has written her piece for The National Student. And she had written several articles before that. I’m guessing it won’t be her last.

I don’t know what Amy’s plans are, but getting her writing out is a great start. Even if she finds disappointment in some aspects of uni life, writing for student papers and getting involved in various extra-curricular activities can equal great experience.

The fact that Amy has done this in her first year is awesomeness. That gives at least a couple more years to achieve more. Much more. Stuff that won’t gain extra marks or improve the degree award, but stuff that will benefit in other ways. Better ways, even.

“Obviously my first year at university has been a learning curve in learning to live independently, meeting new people and discovering myself. It’s easy to forget the real reason we applied here – to get a degree.”

It’s funny, because independent living, self-study, networking, and discovering yourself are all possibly more important than getting that degree. Again, looking back at my previous post, the degree is less important than you. You have so much on offer to help you to develop, to explore, to learn, to challenge yourself, to network, to ask questions, to engage, to enjoy…

Loads of this stuff can be done outside the confines of university. Academic study isn’t the only option. But it’s still a great option. With so much available around you (physically and mentally), like-minded people (hopefully), and time on your hands (occasionally), a lot is convenient at the very least! I still hope the experience goes beyond mere convenience though.

Comparisons are easy. But you end up comparing an ideal scenario with your current reality. That’s not reasonable. Life isn’t like that and the grass always looks greener.

Make the most of your time at uni. Getting a degree is just the start of it!

Do you want to keep making the most of your time at uni? Then subscribe to TheUniversityBlog updates via RSS, or enter your email near the top of the page to get new posts emailed to you. And remember to follow me on Twitter. :)

photo by Chi King

photo by Chi King

99 UK Students’ Unions on Twitter

Back in 2009, I compiled a list of all the students’ unions I could find on Twitter. I found just over 60. Twitter had already made quite a mark.

With the increasing popularity of Twitter, even more SUs have come on board. There have been a couple of name changes since then too.

My original list remains pretty popular, even though it was never updated.

Until now, that is…

I’ve checked the list for changes and additions to make sure it’s as relevant as possible today. There are now 99 SU accounts out there.

Students in Percy Gee Atrium (photo: University of Leicester)

Napier, Cranfield and Buckingham told me that they don’t currently have official Students’ Union/Association Twitter accounts. If I’ve missed any other SUs off the list, please let me know. Otherwise, I hope the list is useful.

If you want to follow all the SUs in a convenient Twitter List, I’ve put all the accounts together on the UK Students’ Unions list for you.

99 104
Students’ Unions on Twitter
(last checked January 2012)

Anglia Ruskin
Bath Spa!/bathspasu
Birmingham City
Bucks New Uni!/buckssu
Canterbury Christ Church
Central Lancashire
De Montfort
East Anglia (UEA)!/UnionUEA
East London!/uelunion
Edge Hill
Goldsmiths (Uni of London)
Leeds Met
Liverpool Hope!/LiverpoolHopeSU
Liverpool John Moores
London Met!/londonmetsu
London South Bank!/LSBU_SU
Manchester Metropolitan!/manmetunion
Nottingham Trent
Oxford Brookes!/oxfordbrookessu
Queen Mary (London)!/QMSU
Robert Gordon!/rguunion
Sheffield Hallam
Sheffield Hallam (Officers)
Southampton Solent!/solentsu
St Andrews
University Campus Suffolk
University College London (UCL)!/UCLU
West London!/wlsu
West of England (Bristol)
York St John!/ysjsu

Sheffield SU (photo by Design & Photography)

Sheffield SU (photo: Design & Photography)