Safe spaces on campus: do they promote activism or are they just spaces for hanging out? 

Welcome to our reporting of the National Union of Students annual Education Conference.  
This year the event is held at the University of Queensland from Monday 25 June to Thursday 29 June.  

Keep reading to see what informational sessions Glass attends, what campaigns the NUS is highlighting, and to see how long it takes for the different factions to get into a screaming match with one another.
Oh, wait! That already happened! 

One of the most contentious debates of the NUS Education Conference has been the role of safe spaces on university campuses, and whether they foster successful student activism or if they are simply spaces for students to socialise.  

The Tuesday session on “Safe spaces on campus: a case study” started with examples from three universities who have recently been able to create safe spaces for people of colour and other marginalised groups. The student leaders spoke about how these spaces have allowed students to have a place to gather with their community, and how impactful they have been for first-year students who might not feel comfortable on campus yet. 

The ability for safe spaces to promote activism was hotly debated by Socialist Alternative (SAlt). “Safe spaces are not a strategy to fight oppression. If you want to fight racism and sexism, you need to fight the Labor government right now. You can’t hide from this in safe spaces,” a member of SAlt said.  

The messaging from SAlt was that student unions should be less focused on creating safe spaces because they are a way for students to hide away without actively fighting against the capitalist systems which oppress them. SAlt wants students out on the streets and actively fighting the oppressive system.  

The argument from the other factions in the room is that their safe spaces are used for building community and socialising but are also used for organising. Students from various universities spoke about the success of their safe spaces in advocating for student rights and encouraging activism. 

The conversation was chaotic and difficult to follow, but the dominate message from the majority in the room was clear. “What does safe spaces in universities have to do with [refugees in detention, indigenous children being locked up, and federal Labor politics]?…This workshop is about teaching universities how to create and implement safe spaces… Stay in your fucking lane!” 

The discussion followed a similar chain of thought to Monday’s session on “Marxist critique of autonomous organising”. This session was about the importance for students to fight against oppressive systems, regardless of their personal identity. The speakers, who were members of SAlt, detailed the issues with autonomous organising and how this practice limits the capacity for diverse ranges of people to come together on political issues.  

The framework of identity politics was examined, with the speakers stating that characterising a person’s beliefs and ideologies on their personal identity was flawed, and that these factors are influenced more by class interests. They said this practise was dangerous because it could result in uplifting someone’s opinion purely because of their status as a minority person or member of an oppressed group.  

The speakers specifically called out the use of safe spaces on campus, claiming that these spaces don’t challenge oppression and just push people into a room and out of mainstream discourse. Various students responded passionately to these claims, saying that these spaces are not inherently political, and are about building community. There was also discussion about what autonomous organising actually means, with some students asserting that autonomous organising is allowing the oppressed group to lead the charge, not necessarily taking over the organising. 

Students participating in both discussions stated that whether or not safe spaces, like a women’s room or prayer room, are mechanisms for political activism should not dictate their existence due to their ability to provide comfort and safety to students who belong to a minority group. 

Celeste Muller
Celeste Muller

Celeste (she/her) is a Meanjin/Brisbane based writer and Editor at Glass Media. She has a Bachelor's degree in Design (Interior Design) and is currently studying Journalism and Economics at QUT.

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