Sharp drop in student backing for free speech

Among the findings in a Hepi report on free speech, the proportion of students saying that their SU should ban offensive speakers has more than doubled in six years

Student support for free speech has dropped markedly in recent years, according to a report published today (23 June) by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi).

Almost two-thirds (61%) of students agree that ‘when in doubt’ their university ‘should ensure all students are protected from discrimination rather than allow unlimited free speech’, compared to barely a third (37%) of respondents to the same question six years ago.

There has been a similarly sharp rise in the proportion of students affirming that ‘if you debate an issue like sexism or racism, you make it acceptable’, more than doubling from 17% in 2016 to 35% today.

YouthSight, a market research company specialising in students’ views, polled a thousand full-time undergraduates on free speech issues on behalf of Hepi, asking them the same questions as six years ago.

“Back then, undergraduates had been born in the previous century, whereas most of today’s undergraduates were born after the turn of the millennium – and they have had to contend with Covid, industrial action and a cost-of-living crisis,” said the report’s author, Nick Hillman. “So, we thought it was important to test opinion once more.”

Relatively few students recognise the unavoidable trade-offs involved with ever greater restrictions on legal free speechNick Hillman, report author

“We have discovered a very clear pattern,” he added. “In 2016, we found considerable ambivalence and confusion about free speech issues. Now, it is clear most students want greater restrictions to be imposed than have tended to be normal in the past.

“This may be primarily for reasons of compassion, with the objective of protecting other students, but it could also reflect a lack of resilience among a cohort that has faced unprecedented challenges.”

Other areas in the report – entitled ‘You can’t say that!’ What students really think of free speech on campus’ – to show a significant shift in opinion include:

  • 64% of students think universities should ‘consult special interest groups (e.g. religious groups or gender societies) about on-campus events’ (up from 40% in 2016)
  • 62% of students support students’ unions refusing to sell tabloid newspapers on grounds of sexism (up from 38%), while only 10% disagree
  • 39% of students believe ‘students’ unions should ban all speakers that cause offence to some students’ (more than double the previous figure of 16%)
  • 77% of students believe there should be ‘mandatory training for all university staff’ on understanding other cultures (up from 55%)
  • The proportion of students who think academics should be fired if they ‘teach material that heavily offends some students’ is 36% (more than double the 15% in 2016)
  • Three-quarters (76%) of students think universities should always or sometimes ‘get rid of’ memorials of potentially controversial figures, up from half (51%) six years ago

Responding to a new question, almost half of students (48%) support the government’s proposal to establish a ‘free speech champion’ for universities in England, with around a quarter (23%) disagreeing (for a comprehensive overview on the potential, practical impact on university life of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, see our feature from February).

In related news: Freedom of speech for controversial speakers has caveats, public survey finds

“Things have seemingly swung too far in one direction,” said Hillman, “with relatively few students recognising the unavoidable trade-offs involved with ever greater restrictions on legal free speech.

“We must ask if the best response is more top-down regulation, more robust institutional management or more light-touch interventions aimed at inculcating a diverse campus culture – or a combination of all three.”

Michelle Donelan, minister for higher and further education, said: “Free speech and academic freedom are values which our world-leading universities take pride, but which can no longer be taken for granted.

“This new Hepi report shows a shocking growth in support for censorship across a wide range of indicators. University leaders can no longer afford to stand aside, but must take active steps to combat these intolerant attitudes on campus, both promoting and protecting free speech. We cannot allow our young people – the future of this great country – to feel like their free speech is being stifled and that they have to bow to the majority opinions on campus.

“This report demonstrates only too clearly the need for our new Free Speech Bill which will ensure we remain the most academically free countries in the world – right where we belong.”

The report makes eight recommendations for the HE sector to “do all it can to own the response to freedom of speech challenges by beefing up what already happens”, including:

  • Reassessing formal procedures, such as existing codes of practice
  • Ensuring consistent good practice, such as balancing controversial speakers with others
  • Giving students improved information on academic norms, including in freshers’ weeks
  • Liaising with student groups to help address experiences of marginalisation and vulnerability
  • Supporting students’ unions and student societies to foster an open culture and debate
  • Working collegially with other institutions to learn best practice
  • Continuing cooperation with official authorities when public safety is at risk
  • Adopting a leadership culture that recognises the importance of free expression

Russell Group director of policy Sarah Stevens said: “Freedom of expression is not an optional extra for UK higher education. It is a principle at the heart of the experience our universities provide. Russell Group members work incredibly hard to ensure students have every opportunity to engage with competing perspectives during their time at university.

“Protecting and promoting freedom of expression does not mean ignoring harassment or tolerating bullying. It does mean, however, accepting that people hold different views and engaging in debates where appropriate. Controversial speakers exercising their free speech within the law and individuals or groups who protest against them both have a right to be heard.

“The balanced recommendations in this report reflect work already underway at our universities to build cultures of open debate, review codes of practice and – crucially – engage with student groups to address issues of marginalisation and vulnerability so everyone can take an active role in discussions on campus.”

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