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Rule Britannia—are we doing enough?

Updated: Feb 16, 2023

The emergence of a student’s "discriminatory" behaviour raises a question: do we have a bigotry problem?

By Evelyn Bayerlein and Olivia Mackenzie Smith

Image courtesy of Clay Banks via Unsplash

Last week, the University of Aberdeen was dragged into the spotlight as the story of a student’s dispute with the student union hit the press. The student in question, after displaying "discriminatory" behaviour according to the Students' Association, was temporarily banned from all premises and activities associated with the student union, though the student has dismissed the accusations as 'ridiculous'. Why did this story circulate so widely beyond Aberdeen, however?

The involvement of the song “Rule Britannia”. It allowed papers such as the Metro, The Times, and many more to use such clickbaity titles such as “Aberdeen University student banned from union for saying Rule Britannia” —downplaying or downright lying about the circumstances surrounding the union’s action. #RuleBritannia was trending on Twitter as many cursed us unpatriotic lefties for our never-ending snow-flakiness and even Tommy Robinson, self-described journalist and professional thug, felt the need to weigh in. But the circumstances surrounding the ban go much further than quoting a song with imperialist undertones.

The ban came during a virtual meeting with international students about whether an on-campus military presence is appropriate, due to their close ties with colonialism. The student responded in the chatroom: “if the British military makes them feel uncomfortable why did they come to a British uni?” then adding “Rule, Britannia.” The fact that they would rather foreign students stop coming to Aberdeen than the University address the army’s contribution to unnecessary overseas slaughter is enough to raise doubts in anyone’s mind as to her character.

The union launched an investigation into their behaviour but couldn’t conclude that there was “deliberate racist content”. But should the student union be alone in acting on this?

This is by no means a new thing, and we aren’t the first to point this out. An open letter was sent to the University when a black medical student had come forward with allegations of racism. The letter wanted a change to the culture, but has there been?

It seems that everyone has time to be shocked and disheartened but not enough time to actually do anything. And where is AUSA in all this? A spokesperson for them said “freedom of speech should not be mistaken for permission to say horrible, abusive and disrespectful things without facing the consequences”.

Although this statement is true, it does not seem to be accompanied by any action against the strudent or others who seem to think that this sort of behaviour is excusable. Every incident is met with “we don’t condone this and an investigation will be carried out”. Sometimes it feels like the only thing keeping AUSA together is the desire to keep quiet. It is nowhere near good enough for people and institutions to not be discriminatory—what these institutions need to grasp is that they need to be actively anti-discriminatory.

However, AUSA are not the only ones who have a responsibility in defending students from hate crimes; the staff of this University also have an obligation to ensure that no one is victimised for their race, sexual orientation, gender, or any other unchangeable characteristic. According to the ‘Code of Practice on Student Discipline’, the University Court can launch a disciplinary investigation into any student charged with misconduct. The most serious forms of misconduct can include “discriminating against any member of the University community” (perhaps by calling someone a slur) and “behaving in a violent, indecent or threatening manner” (like threatening to lynch someone).

There have been charges against the student accompanied by evidence, so why isn’t an investigation being started? A petition has taken off calling for this very investigation. The student who started this petition, Rosie McCaffrey, says “language like that, especially when used so aggressively the [that] police have gotten involved, is threatening to a lot of the student population.”

This story is disturbing, but what’s more disturbing is the knowledge that they're not alone. The best way to create an environment free of prejudice is to fight it wherever you find it, and at the moment it feels like the University is failing to do that, but they can take a step in the right direction by launching a full-scale disciplinary investigation into any and all allegations of discrimination.


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