A survey suggests the British public is divided about free speech and the extent to which citizens should exercise sensitivity to people from different backgrounds.
Most do not support no-platforming at universities but do not think university lecturers are all left-wing.
The survey of 2,800 UK adults and its accompanying report – Culture wars in the UK: political correctness and free speech – is the latest publication from the Policy Institute at King’s College London.
It finds that around one in six Britons (17%) support no-platforming in UK universities, compared with half (50%) who are against it and a quarter (24%) who have no strong opinion either way. Asked if it was acceptable for students to prevent invited speakers from speaking or disrupting the events they are speaking at, respondents were statistically more likely to agree if they were Labour voters or from a minority ethnic background. Younger people seem less opposed to the idea than older people: 32% of 16- to 24-year-olds oppose students no-platforming, compared with 60% of those aged 55 and above.
Asked to choose what was more important, 53% say it is more important for universities to expose students to all types of viewpoints – even if they are offensive or biased against certain groups – than ban speech that promotes these views (28%).
This January, the former chair of the Office for Students warned vice-chancellors during a speech at King’s College that freedom of speech on university campuses is as important as diversity and inclusion.
Sir Michael Barber warned against university “groupthink”, urging vice-chancellors to protect “diversity of perspective” as much as diversity of social background, gender, ethnicity, religion, age, and disability. He said universities should foster a “pluralistic and dynamic intellectual culture” and “guard against conscious or unconscious groupthink”.
The poll suggests, however, that most Britons do not share this concern.
Among those who have attended university, 27% thought their professors had left-wing views, but 36% felt their academics had diverse opinions. Those who had not attended university were less likely to say university lecturers were of a similar political bent: 18% thought they were left-wing versus 42% that said they had diverse political persuasions. Those surveyed, on the whole, thought the student body was more skewed to the left, but graduates (41%) were more likely to hold this view than non-graduates (28%).
The survey also asked participants for their opinions on political correctness, government regulation and sensitivity.
Although 39% of people think the government should not favour any particular set of values, the majority (56%) say it should promote either liberal or conservative values. A third (31%) want the government to support more progressive values in society, and a quarter (25%) say it should favour more traditional values. Asked to rank their view on political correctness, most respondents (55%) tended to feel people take offence too readily, but 42% thought it important to moderate their language.
A significant majority (62%) think political correctness “has gone too far” – three times the number (19%) that disagree.
The government has announced plans to appoint a director for freedom of speech and academic freedom to the board of the Office for Students, who will monitor universities and students’ unions and have the ability to levy fines for infringements.
A recent public survey commissioned by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) and the civic university charity UPP Foundation found that a majority think that people should be allowed to speak to students at university so long as their views are not illegal (55%).
The Hepi survey suggested the public broadly supports the rights of people to speak to students if they are supportive of the British Empire, believe in lower immigration to Britain, disagree with gay marriage and gender self-identification and support the Trump presidency. They also support communists and former violent criminals addressing university audiences.
The public broadly disagrees, according to the survey, with those who espouse racist rhetoric, Holocaust denial and jihadism being given platforms at universities.
Although different groups differed in their levels of support or opposition in all 10 scenarios, no group held an opposing view to the majority.