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Students want less free speech, survey shows

Freedom of Speech
23 June 2022
University 0

More Undergraduates than ever before support restrictions on free speech and affirm the right of individuals not to feel offended, a new survey suggests.

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) undertook a survey of 1,000 students at UK Universities in May this year on free speech issues. The group then compared the results to an identical survey in 2016.

The results show:

  • Most students believe one or more political groups should be banned from speaking at unis. When presented with a long list of parties, just 13% said ‘none of the above’ (down from 27% in 2016).
  • 39% of students believe ‘students’ unions should ban all speakers that cause offence to some students’ (more than double the 16% figure in 2016).
  • The proportion of students who think academics should be fired if they ‘teach material that heavily offends some students’ is 36% (over double the 15% in 2016).
  • When asked about libraries, one-third of students (34%) said ‘all resources should be included for the purpose of academic study, regardless of content’ (down from 47% in 2016).
  • 76% of students think universities should always or sometimes ‘get rid of’ memorials of potentially controversial figures (up from 51% in 2016).

Director of HEPI, Nick Hillman, commented:

"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.

"A high proportion of today’s students have a different conception of academic freedom and free speech norms than earlier generations and also from many policymakers, regulators and commentators.

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

"So 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."

HEPI has made a number of recommendations to universities, including new codes of practice, giving students more information on academic norms, and working with student societies to foster an open culture and debate.

Higher Education Bill

In May last year, the UK Government brought forward higher education proposals to safeguard free speech on campuses, after growing concern about the silencing of challenging and unorthodox views.

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) bill will require universities, colleges, and – for the first time – student unions to protect and promote free speech or face penalties.

Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, said the findings of the HEPI study showed a “shocking growth in support for censorship”.

“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.”

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