A student midwife was in the news last week after her involvement with a pro-life student society led to her fitness to practise being investigated. After being suspended from her hospital placements for almost four months, Julia Rynkiewicz was cleared of any wrongdoing and has now lodged a formal complaint with the University of Nottingham about her treatment during the process.
While you might have thought that a deep care for unborn children would be in a midwife’s job description, apparently such views can now imperil a career in delivering babies into the world. Midwives and other medical professionals are of course subject to regulation and are expected to uphold professional standards, but the prospect of a student’s fitness to practice being called into question for merely being publicly associated with a pro-life student group is chilling.
In Julia’s case, she was president of 'Nottingham Students for Life' – a student society that had successfully overturned the union’s decision to deny it affiliation. One of Julia’s lecturers lodged a complaint with the university's Midwifery School after interacting with her at the society’s Freshers Fair stall. Julia was suspended from her placement just three days later, before ultimately being cleared by a fitness to practise committee. Despite being cleared, the investigation took a heavy toll on Julia. Not only did she face significant stress during the suspension, but she was also informed that she would have to interrupt her studies, and graduate a year later than intended.
Her case marks a shocking escalation in the continuing inability of universities to secure free speech on campus. Student unions across the county have (illegally) sought to prevent pro-life societies from affiliating in the first place on the basis that their 'values' are out of line with those of the student body. Rowdy protests have disrupted events that seek to examine the issue on the basis that the topic is not up for discussion. Some have even argued that simply holding pro-life views should disqualify you from entering the midwifery profession.
This Conservative government committed to 'strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities' in its election manifesto, and Julia’s case shows why it is imperative that it delivers on that promise. Universities have to ensure that students can fully debate and explore sensitive but important topics without a looming threat of being suspended from their course and hauled before a fitness to practise committee. Complaints that target a student’s beliefs must be considered with particular caution, as it is evidently far too easy at present for someone to play the 'I’m offended' card, and derail a student's career. Where lecturers are involved in such complaints, particular care must be taken to ensure that students aren’t being pressured to conform to other ideological positions.
There are undoubtedly many important lessons to be learned here, and the University of Nottingham has said that it is carefully considering Julia’s complaint. For her part, Julia hopes that no other student will have to experience what she went through. If free speech on campus is to be genuinely upheld, a case like hers should never arise again.
Laurence Wilkinson is legal counsel at ADF International