By George Simms
In 2005, Gavin Williamson was in the news. At the time, he was the managing director of Aynsley China, a Staffordshire-based pottery firm. People had been physically fighting on shop floors for their plates commemorating Charles and Camilla’s wedding, which seemed destined to become a collectible. They were unlike any other commemorative plate for the event – because every single one was embossed with the wrong date.
This was the job Williamson had taken up after he resigned from another firm following an affair with a colleague. In 2019, he was sacked from his role as Defence Secretary after a massive document leak. This is ignoring any events from his current stint as Education Secretary. Now, I don’t want to just lay out an ad hominem attack against Williamson, but it can’t be ignored that his track record for gross incompetence isn’t exactly squeaky clean.
Recently, Gavin Williamson has been back in the news. In his role as Education Secretary, his astute political nous has deduced that defending free speech on Britain’s university campuses is the best use of his time and energy. That’s free speech on campuses that the students can’t attend, thanks to the policies he appears to have forgotten he implemented. He’s appointed a ‘Free Speech Champion’ to marshal our empty
universities and make sure that all voices and opinions can be heard from guest speakers. In a university environment currently characterised by anger and despair over mental health and rent crises, good ol’ Gav has appointed a ‘Protector of the Zoom Guest Lecture’.
Of course free speech is an important issue on university campuses, but he’s chosen to target it at a time when students need, and care about, it the least. Personally, I was quite pleased to hear Williamson discussing the issue, because I was starting to worry that he’d forgotten Britain’s 2.38 million university students actually existed.
For most students today, our experiences of university are the occasional Zoom lecture and seminars from our childhood bedrooms. We’re paying £9,250 a year for the privilege, with most students still paying an average of £547 a month for rent on top of that, for houses and accommodation they’ve been forbidden from living in. This all contributes to less than 40% of students believing they’re currently getting value
for their money. However, for someone who seems remarkably concerned with speaking freely, Gavin Williamson has been impressively quiet regarding calls for financial support for the students still wasting large amounts of money on rent.
The rent crisis is just one of many contributing factors to the wider mental health crisis plaguing the student population. In the first lockdown alone, universities reported ten student suicides, with the BBC reporting another 17 on top of that between March and December 2020. University confession pages, normally awash with funny anecdotes and ridiculous questions, have become an outlet for desperate students who believe they have nowhere else to turn, or simply need to feel heard. According to mental health charity, Mind, 73% of students reported that the lockdowns have seriously damaged their mental health.
The introduction of more free speech regulations in the midst of all this is a demonstration of how little this government understands, or cares about the student population. In introducing these free speech measures, they are serving only to benefit their own interests. In both Conservative Party and conservative circles, universities are seen as a breeding ground for left-wing, ‘woke’ echo chambers. For the most part, the speakers losing their platforms are right/far-right leaning and these are the voices government policies are aiming to amplify. This government cares more about influencing students’ political leanings than supporting their mental health.
This is part of the wider reason that the government are ignoring students. According to a YouGov poll, just 21% of 18 to 24-yearolds voted for the Tories in the 2019 election. If we won’t vote for them, why should they help us? As ridiculous as it may sound, they know they can be this petty. The next election is unlikely to take place until 2024.
Whilst many of our Conservative-voting parents may be furious at how we’re being treated now, three more years of water under the bridge and tax breaks may leave this a distant memory. Just adding to the general state of hopelessness, the government’s blatant and callous lack of care for students may well go unpunished at the ballot box.
Being a student during the pandemic presents a unique problem. By definition, undergraduates only have three or four years on campus while
postgraduate students are paying extortionate prices for one or two. Students are watching precious time and money evaporate before their eyes, the years sold as ‘the best of their lives’. We are tired, lost and hopeless, yet Gavin Williamson has told us that defending free speech should be our highest priority.
When the students of today vote for anyone but the Tories in 2024, their politicians will simply rue the damage done by our time in our left-wing, ‘woke’ echo chambers. Their ‘Free Speech Champion’ tried to save us from ourselves. Students are crippled by anxiety and depression, committing suicide at an alarming rate and feeling a lot like they’re burning thousands of pounds to do so. But the government will claim there
was nothing else they could have done. Gavin Williamson, master of the catastrophic mess, has struck again.
Illustration: Adeline Zhao