The president of Magdalen College, Oxford, has strongly defended her graduate students’ right to remove a photograph of the Queen from their common room after the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, called the move “absurd”.
Members of the college’s middle common room (MCR), which is restricted to students taking postgraduate degrees, voted to take down the print, with minutes of the meeting noting that “for some students depictions of the monarch and the British monarchy represent recent colonial history”.
Williamson tweeted: “Oxford university students removing a picture of the Queen is simply absurd. She is the head of state and a symbol of what is best about the UK. During her long reign she has worked tirelessly to promote British values of tolerance, inclusivity and respect around the world.”
But Dinah Rose, the president of Magdalen College, swiftly responded: “Here are some facts about Magdalen College and HM the Queen. The Middle Common Room is an organisation of graduate students. They don’t represent the College. A few years ago, in about 2013, they bought a print of a photo of the Queen to decorate their common room.
“They recently voted to take it down. Both of these decisions are their own to take, not the College’s. Magdalen strongly supports free speech and political debate, and the MCR’S right to autonomy. Maybe they’ll vote to put it up again, maybe they won’t. Meanwhile, the photo will be safely stored.”
Rose added: “Being a student is about more than studying. It’s about exploring and debating ideas. It’s sometimes about provoking the older generation. Looks like that isn’t so hard to do these days.”
Williamson’s intervention comes as the government has put pressure on universities to defend access to campuses for controversial speakers. Last month it proposed new freedom of speech legislation that would bring student unions under the surveillance of the higher education regulator, the Office for Students, and appoint a “free speech champion” to its board.
The bill would allow academics, students or visiting speakers to seek compensation through the courts if they suffered loss from a university’s policies.
Matthew Katzman, Magdalen’s MCR president, told the Daily Telegraph: “It has been taken down. It was decided to leave the common room neutral. That was what this was about. The college will have plenty of depictions of various things, but the common room is meant to be a space for all to feel welcome.”