Opinion: Students must learn how to disagree in order to beat ’cancel culture’

Undergraduates must learn the art of polite discourse as part of their degree, says UCL President & Provost Dr Michael Spence.

Students need to be taught how to disagree with one another to tackle "cancel culture", a leading vice-chancellor said as he warned that society has forgotten how to debate.

Undergraduates must learn the art of polite discourse as part of their degree, according to Dr Michael Spence, the president and provost of University College London (UCL).

Dr Spence said that if universities want to promote free speech on campus, they need to start by teaching students how to discuss controversial topics without shouting each other down.

"The core issue is that we have forgotten about how to disagree well," he said. "Part of what we have a responsibility at universities to do is to model and to teach students how to disagree well across really sometimes quite profound barriers of disagreement."

He said the main problem on campus is students’ inability to engage in courteous debate with their peers and fellow academics.

"Practising the norms of disagreeing well, not making an enemy of other people, trying to work out where there is common ground - these are core intellectual skills that I think universities have a fundamental role in teaching," he said.

He added that when UCL was founded in 1826, people had to "learn that art of having a good coffee room debate", but now students need to learn the "art of having a good debate" on social media as well as in person.

Dr Spence’s remarks come after the Russell Group, which represents 24 of the UK’s leading universities including UCL, insisted it is committed to free speech and that spirited debates happen regularly.

Earlier this year, the Government announced a crackdown on "cancel culture" which will include the introduction of a new law under which academics will be able to sue if their free speech is violated.

Ministers have proposed a raft of new laws to bolster free speech at universities amid concerns about the rise of "silencing and censoring" both academics and students on campus.

Under the plans, universities that stifle free speech will be fined and a new "Free Speech Champion" will be given powers to defend free speech and academic freedom on campuses. Other proposed changes to the law will ensure that student unions, as well as universities, are subject to the duties to promote free speech.

Universities will be given a new legal duty to actively promote free speech on campus, and this will become a new condition of registration with the higher education watchdog, the Office for Students (OfS). Any institutions that fail to uphold free speech could be sanctioned by the regulator.

This article first appeared in The Telegraph on 25 April 2021.


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