By Madeleine Horton
The President-elect of Durham Students’ Union, George Walker, was removed from a Durham University Open Day yesterday.
Mr Walker claims that he was “escorted from university property” for discussing tuition fees with visitors at the event.
In a Twitter post, he stated that he and the elected Postgraduate Academic Officer, David Evans, were first approached by security staff at 11:15 that morning.
Speaking to Palatinate, Evans said: “We were doing this outside the library and away from the open day marquee and stands set up by the University, on the edges of the path towards the Church Street crossroads.
“We were offering the flyers to people and then talking to them about the historic rises in fees and the #RippedOff campaign if they showed interest in engaging, and indeed many people overheard conversations we were having and then came over to take a flyer and talk to us without us having to approach them, showing the interest the attendees had in the opinions and information we were offering.”
The cost of living in college has risen to above £7000 in recent years. Over the past nine academic years the rise in fees has exceeded the Retail Price Index (RPI) by a difference of over 25%.
Evans continued: “We were told a member of University staff had phoned to complain of our presence and that we were conducting an ‘unauthorised peaceful protest’ – when we asked what this meant, we were told that protests had to be approved by the University or they would be shut down.
“We were then also asked for our campus cards/IDs, with the guard saying he had to report this incident and include this information in the report. When we asked what the basis in University policies or law was for us requiring to show our identities, he could not provide it and stopped asking for our identities”
They were then informed that the Open Day Manager had said the police would be called if the two did not leave the site.
Evans called the incident “a direct attempt by someone with higher authority in the University to intimidate us into giving up and leaving, as they did not like the fact that we were having honest conversations with prospective students and their guardians that might remove some of the superficial gloss from the picture the University management want to present.”
Professor Alan Houston, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Education) at Durham University, said: “We are aware of an incident that took place on Saturday involving campus security and two of our students.
“A member of staff mistakenly believed that the students were not members of the University and were handing out flyers for a private business.
“Durham is strongly committed to the principles of freedom of speech. I am deeply sorry for this incident, and will be contacting both students to discuss what happened.”
Mr Walker was dismayed, and later wrote online: “This has never happened before when I’ve been involved in student protests in Durham.”
THREAD🗣️ So today myself and another student representative were handing out some flyers at the @durham_uni open day encouraging prospective students and parents to write to the Vice-Chancellor about the extortionate cost of college accommodation in Durham
— George Walker 🌹 (@GRWalker97) June 30, 2018
He argued that their removal was symptomatic of a more general stifling of free speech on campus, describing it as “a really worrying move to silence criticisms of the University and restrict the freedom of expression that the university claims to have been committed to.”
Speaking to Palatinate, Walker said: “I think primarily the University’s overreaction is concerning as it shows a much more heavy-handed approach to student criticism of the university than we have seen for a number of years and calls into question the university’s commitment to freedom of expression on campus.
“Rather than attempting to shut down criticism from student representatives, I think the University would be much better off instead addressing the concerns being raised about the affordability of the student experience at Durham.”
Walker claims that he was threatened with a call to the police simply because “two student representatives were handing out leaflets” and that the University body should not be “intimidating those who speak out” against it.
Durham Student Union President, Megan Croll, stated: “What makes me sad about the actions of the University today is that I’m completely unsurprised by their behaviour.”
She continued: “They are so quick to shut down any expression of our frustrations; it’s disappointing and quite frankly very tiring.”
The incident comes at a time of escalated discussion surrounding free speech in British Universities. In May, Universities Minister Sam Gyimah announced clearer guidelines on free speech for institutions.
Evans has also said: “While this incident shows the University still doesn’t have it’s house in order when it comes to tolerating freedom of speech, it’s principally endemic of a culture of disdain for student views and lobbying within the University.”
Photograph: David Evans, DSU #RippedOff campaign