The recent Reading University tweet which not challenged critics of the establishment offering scholarships to 14 refugees, but specifically told them what they could go do, won a lot of fans on Twitter. This post from a head of comms from the sector gives a wider view and perspective.
by Julie Odams
“Boom! Go the University of Reading!” I shouted at my phone on the 2nd July in response to their now famous tweet about their refugee scholarships. There’s not a public (and possibly private) sector comms person alive who isn’t sick to the back teeth of the hate, abuse and trolls that appear online every day, and it was good to see someone take a stand. I also feel that the University of Reading’s scheme is a positive thing and it was good to see someone standing up for liberal values.
Huge numbers of people agreed. To date their tweet has had over 75k likes and over 25k retweets along with large numbers of comments. That’s the kind of engagement Communications Teams dream of. In an unscientific poll of my network the vast majority thought the tweet was brilliant. The post, and the discussion around it, has generated huge amounts of publicity for the University of Reading and has seen them receive donations to their scholarship fund. The Times Higher Education, alongside the Daily Mail and many others, have written (relatively) positive coverage.
So why, the next day, did I start to feel a discomfort with the post? I have great respect for any organisation that publicly stands up for its values and takes a strong line. Most of us don’t do it enough. But the post, or more specifically its tone and use of language, polarises viewpoints further and doesn’t help to convince people of why refugee scholarships should be supported. The point was made eloquently by Nicky Hawkins in the Guardian who suggested that the post would further entrench views.
There is an argument (and a strong one) that as a sector we’ve been arguing the case for refugee support, widening participation, transgender rights and other similar positions for many years and haven’t won the arguments. It often feels like we’re patiently discussing the same points again and again without getting anywhere, so maybe it is time to just say no and hold our line?
In my opinion, the risk is more than entrenchment. The language in the tweet, specifically ‘Tough. Jog on’, shuts down the option for any further discussion. Many will have had reasonable questions about this and other widening participation schemes and, whilst some posed those questions (which, to be clear, the University of Reading was very active in responding to), many will have felt that they would now be unwelcome or they would personally be held up as pariahs.
Discussions are important: they are the very free speech that we as institutions seek to uphold and the very thing that some in positions of power believe we are trying to quash. By shutting down the debate we are confirming the suspicion that universities are left-wing bastions that are too aloof to be challenged. Many scholarship funds, in many institutions, will be supported by a range of donations, student fees and widening participation financial support. Those contributing to those funding pots, and our wider society (given that many of us are civic and anchor institutions) have the right to question us. The Higher Education sector is not too important to be challenged.
I have spoken to the Communications Team at the University of Reading and they took a considered position supported by their institution. It was not a knee-jerk reaction to some comments online. I applaud their passion and strength in taking and holding a strong line. And whilst it wasn’t the intention, the surrounding comment may persuade prospective students to go with Reading as a place that reflects their views. However, others will feel that their questions will not be tolerated, and that their opinions are unwelcome.
For the sector, the University of Reading’s tweet and the surrounding media comment do little to change the perception that we, as a sector, will not tolerate being challenged and consider ourselves to be beyond question. That, in the current political climate, is dangerous. Debate may be frustrating at times, and we may all want to tell people to ‘jog on’ at some points, but we must uphold the very values we say we champion in all of our actions or risk being found to be the very thing we claim we are not.
Julie Odams is head of communications at Staffordshire University
Image via MandoBarista