University of York Students' Union (YUSU)

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Engaging Students in a Positive Debate - Reflections on Event of this Week

Posted by Benjamin Leatham, 16/10/2015

Over the course of this week a number of students have written to me to raise their concerns about the nature of a demonstration that was planned to take place outside this week's career's fair.

The demonstration was focused on the inclusion of companies that among their functions, manufacture and supply arms.

It's important to recognise, there is a legal right to protest and the University also has an active policy on protecting free speech. I have no right or indeed ambition to attempt to overrule either the law or the University's policy on free speech. I want to encourage students to be able to articulate their views and opinions and, as active members of society, to have a forum to explore a range of solutions that make their own and the wider world a better place. I should also state that I firmly believe it was the intention of students involved with the planned action to demonstpeacefully and indeed I understand it was on this basis (and with safeguards in place to ensure it was conducted peacefully) that the University approved the event.

 

It wasn't these things that, in the majority of cases, caused concern from students. What concerned them and indeed myself and fellow officers at YUSU was:

  1. the role of YUSU in the event either through planning made by elected officials, it's place in policy or resources provided
  2. the specific aims of the event 
  3. the potential detriment to some students

 

As soon as the event and students’ concerns were bought to our attention I sought to try and address all three of the above points and the following actions were agreed and decisions were taken as swiftly as possible;

  • The original blog promoting the event was promptly edited to ensure that it did not unfairly focus the event on specific international disputes but on the arms trade more generally. The blog was edited in agreement with the authors and within YUSU's responsibility as the owner of the platform on which it was published. The blog was later removed as the authors decided to further consult with members prior to pursuing any campaign on the issue.
  • Consultation took place with the University to confirm they had sanctioned the event and that suitable measures were in place to ensure it was peaceful and did not intimidate students participating in the fair.
  • I met with the Ethical & Environmental Officers, who had initial involvement in the event to understand the extent to which they had a mandate for a campaign of this nature and what their intentions were from a campaign

 

In addition we are intending to look at how we provide all union representatives (full time sabbatical officers and part time officers) with the training, support and information they need to ensure that the work they do reflects the opinions and ideas of students and is delivered in a suitable way.

The Ethical and Environmental officers and I met prior to the event to discuss the campaign. It is clear that they had identified the issue of arms trade as one that is consistent with, and has a natural home in, their elected portfolio and, importantly, as an issue that our Students wish to engage in and explore. After all, the pursuit of a more peaceful world and the ethical implications of arms trade have a long history in UK higher education. An exploration of the arms trade, the ethics around it, the part arms trade plays in world conflict and the constant endeavor for peace is something I'm personally very interested in and the majority of the communications I received raising concerns about the nature of the event also declared an interest. Having become aware of students concerns and in lieu of the arrangement of an alternative event in a different format that will engage a broader cross section of students in a conversation about the arms trade and build a campaign with a strong mandate, the Ethical and Environmental officers decided to withdraw from the independently organised demonstration event at the careers fair.

I commend the above decision from our E & E officers on their decision and their commitment to engaging students in campaigning about issues which directly impact students and wider society.