March 23, 2021 - 11:50am

Student unions are going through an identity crisis. Where they once sought to protect female students, they now appear more concerned with harassing women than representing them.

A motion debated yesterday at the National University of Ireland, Galway provides a prime example of this bizarre shift. Although the ballot was ultimately postponed, class representatives were to vote on a motion entitled “Opposing Fascism, Far-Right Extremism, and All Forms of Discrimination.” It identified 16 organisations to be automatically no-platformed by the Student Union; listing feminist and gay rights groups Radicaillín, the Irish Women’s Lobby and the LGB Alliance alongside one or two political parties and several far-Right organisations.

In a blatant attempt to purge the SU of anyone who diverges from the author’s political opinions, its representatives would further be prohibited from sharing a public platform with anyone from these groups. Incredibly, the motion provides no details on how they were chosen and reserves the SU’s right to add more organisations to the blacklist with zero accountability or oversight. This becomes somewhat more intelligible when we learn that the motion’s author campaigns for a political party in direct competition with the ones on the list.

If successful, the students involved have pledged to bring it to the National Union of Students in Ireland — where it could become a blight on academic freedom at every university in Ireland.

There has also been a systematic attempt by the union to silence women with dissenting opinions. Since openly opposing the motion, NUIG student Saoirse Connolly has been harassed online by members of her Student Union (of which she herself is an elected representative). The author of the tabled motion spent yesterday morning tweeting that “TERFs aren’t welcome here” and another student rep recently threatened to “set transphobes on fire.”

This is not an isolated incident. As a student at Cambridge, I know first-hand the vitriol directed at female, lesbian, gay and bisexual students who diverge from the accepted progressive orthodoxy. I get messages every week from students here and elsewhere who feel unable to openly express their views, and a member of the Cambridge Radical Feminist Network (of which I am co-president) recently received rape and death threats from a fellow student.

Rather than seeking to address this harassment, our student union fans the flames. The incoming Women’s Officer ran on a manifesto which promised students an “anti-SWERF” guide — SWERFs being feminists who oppose the decriminalisation of sex-buyers in favour of decriminalising prostituted women. The fact that more instances of sexual violence were reported by Cambridge students between 2014 and 2018 than almost anywhere else in the country was apparently too insignificant to feature.

At Cambridge, we have responded by organising our own events and supporting each other when the student union falls short. But we should not have to work around our elected representatives, and students like Saoirse should not have to put their wellbeing and education on the line in order to take an opposing stance. I do not know what the outcome will be, but one thing is clear — in universities across the UK and Ireland, students are in a fight for the soul of our student unions.

Sophie is a final year student in Psychological and Behavioural Sciences at Newnham College, Cambridge.