Glasgow Journal: Students face abuse for wearing military uniform on campus

Article first published 2 October 2013 on the Journal’s website and was the leading story in the Glasgow print run. This piece was also featured on the Guardian Students Abby & Libby blog.

Members of student military associations across Glasgow have spoken out against the backlash they have received for wearing regimental uniform on university grounds.

Cadets — who are full-time undergraduates — have suffered verbal abuse from neighbouring societies and even the public during freshers’ week.

The vast majority of university groups canvass across campus at the start of term in order to expand their member base. However, the military associations’ practice of wearing uniform has ignited resistance from liberal groups and students’ unions who disagree with their presence in higher education establishments.

This year, members of these associations have spoken out about the harassment and stigma they face due to their appearance.

An officer cadet from the Glasgow Universities’ Royal Naval Unit (URNU), who wished to remain anonymous, spoke of recent intrusions during their canvassing.

He said: “We were sitting at our stall and a group of older guys from the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) paused to look at our leaflets. One man was dressed in black and acting a bit aloof; I tried to chat to him and he completely ignored me. When some freshers approached our stall, he shoved an anti-nuclear leaflet towards them. He wouldn’t budge and the SRC (Student Representative Council) had to tell him to move on.”

Although Glasgow University’s student council stepped in to prevent an escalating situation in this instance, the University Air Squadron (UGSAS) have reported differing instances of prejudice by the SRC.

Photo credit: D Boag
Photo credit: D Boag

One officer cadet explained how she was wandering around the freshers’ fair when she was asked to leave.

She said: “I was in the SRC building surrounded by anti-Trident and peace societies.” The cadet continued to walk around the stalls silently but due to her uniform was approached by a security guard who told her: “It would be better if you weren’t here.”

Both Glasgow and Strathclyde universities claim to “flexible” attitude towards the military societies, with the uniformed cadets being allowed to access freshers’ fairs since 2011, but this year the Students’ Association of the University of the West of Scotland (SAUWS) released a statement to the University Naval Unit highlighting their policy “will not allow anyone or any society associated with the forces into their freshers’ fairs.”

Iain Shepherd, SAUWS deputy president, explained why the university units — which are misinterpreted as full-time military — have been banned from the fairs.

He said: “It was felt to be inappropriate that the armed forces attempt to capitalise on the vulnerability of students in order to convince them to join the forces. We should not be allowing recruitment of individuals away from university.”

When SAUWS was further enlightened on the status of the units — which are additions to the students’ full-time degrees, and not a direct recruitment tool — Shepherd inferred that SAUWS’s information “may need [to be] updated” and that in his opinion, “the Council would still have voted against allowing military societies on campus, even with full knowledge of the information just highlighted.”

Contrastingly, UWS’s depute principal Paul Martin distanced the university from the decisions made by its Students’ Association.

He said: “UWS enjoys a positive and active relationship with all the armed forces and the Students’ Association cannot ban individuals from campus.”

However, as SAUWS organise student activities, they are “responsible for the management of the freshers’ fair” and can choose to exclude societies from this event if they so wish.

Both the Ministry of Defence and the Glasgow units’ commanding officers have appealed against this blatant discrimination.

Speaking to The Journal, an MoD spokesperson said: “Cadets should be allowed to attend Freshers’ Fair like every other society. We would expect UWS to allow [cadets] to operate freely on campus as they do in universities across the country.” The statement was mirrored by Lt Gary Bickley, Commanding Officer of Glasgow URNU, who stressed that “the University Royal Naval Unit is an educational organisation funded by the Royal Navy. It is not my job to recruit people and none of my students have any liability to the Service.”

Lt Col James Bryden, the Commanding Officer of Glasgow Universities’ Officer Training Corps (OTC), made a crucial differentiation between “‘recruitment’ for the OTC/URNU and [standard military] recruitment. We do the first but not the second and that’s fundamental to our privileged position on campus.”

Despite the student cadets having no obligation to the military, Joshua, a member of the Socialist Worker Student Society (SWSS) concentrated on the imagery that uniforms present on campus.

He said: “By wearing the uniform they are glorifying the military. These university organisations are a bridge to [full-time] service and on campus it’s distasteful.

“People are here to learn and the military presents the polar opposite of education. Violence and intimidation are inappropriate.”

Arthur West, chairman of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) affirmed these concerns.

He said: “We see the army and sometimes navy turning up at events and organising stalls. I hope that the forces tell young people that they face a tough and dangerous life [if] they join. They have a duty to present a balanced view of service life so that people are not misled.”

In response to concerns about uniform, Lt Bickley said: “Many university clubs have ‘uniforms’ or some way of identifying them. We’re no different. It’s just that our uniform is the same as the Royal Navy.”

Yet the irony remains that the cadets are frequently subject to the discrimination that many vocal liberal clubs and societies on campuses across Glasgow protest so strongly against.

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