The row over Kathleen Stock’s invitation to speak at the Oxford Union has made it to Downing Street, as Rishi Sunak told The Telegraph he thinks the event should go ahead.
As many as 1000 protesters are expected to picket the Union on Tuesday night while Stock speaks in the chamber, in the culmination of a protracted dispute which has divided students and staff. Stock has been accused of transphobia, and her invitation has sparked uproar among segments of the student body who do not believe the Union should host her.
Sunak told the newspaper he believed students should be allowed to hear and debate Stock’s views, as she is a prominent voice in the debate surrounding trans rights.
“University should be an environment where debate is supported, not stifled. We mustn’t allow a small but vocal few to shut down discussion. Kathleen Stock’s invitation to the Oxford Union should stand.”
“A tolerant society is one which allows us to understand those we disagree with, and nowhere is that more important than within our great universities,” he said.
This comes after students and academics at Oxford have signed a series of opposing letters. An initial letter to The Telegraph that supported Stock’s visit in the name of free speech was signed by 40 academics, swiftly followed by a similar student letter with over 100 signatures. An opposing letter against Stock’s visit was also published last week with signatures from over 100 academics.
Controversy over Stock’s invitation to the Oxford Union coincided with a decision by the Oxford Student Union (SU) to ban the Union from having a stall at freshers’ fair, although the SU denies that this was related. The ban will not take effect, as the University intervened by telling the SU that for the freshers’ fair they would consider the Union to be a student society. This also likely means that the Union will be able to avoid the £4000 cost of a commercial stall.
The dispute comes at a significant moment for the political debate over speech in universities. Later this week, Sunak is set to confirm the Cambridge University academic Arif Ahmed as a Director of Free Speech and Academic Freedom. Under the recently-passed Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023, Ahmed will have the power to investigate universities and student unions in England and Wales who are accused of censoring academics and speakers for their views. Ahmed was criticised by the master of Gonville and Caius College and Cambridge students for inviting the gender-critical feminist Helen Joyce to give a talk about cancel culture.