Majority of Students in British Universities Have Grown Much More Intolerant of Free Speech Since 2016: Report

Majority of Students in British Universities Have Grown Much More Intolerant of Free Speech Since 2016: Report
Students throw their caps in the air during their graduation photograph at the University of Birmingham degree congregations in Birmingham, England, on July 14, 2009. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Owen Evans

The Higher Education Policy Institute has polled 1,000 full-time undergraduates on free speech issues, concluding that students are significantly less supportive of free expression than they were just a few years ago.

The new results show a solid increase from 2016 with things seemingly swinging "too far in one direction," with students wanting greater restrictions to be imposed on things that have tended to be considered normal in the past.

Academic free speech defenders saw the news as more yet evidence that without intervention or cultural change, the shift to the centre-ground of public opinion will swing in the direction of an illiberal form of "cultural socialism."

Restricting Freedom of Expression

The research was published by The Higher Education Policy Institute, an education policy think tank which was set up by a member of the centrist to centre-left political party the Liberal Democrats in 2002 to influence the "higher education debate with evidence." Its current chairman is the Lib Dem politician David Laws.

Their questions posed to the students were identical to those posed through the same polling company in 2016 (with two additions), allowing them to make a comparison of how views have changed over the past six years.

The survey has come out at a time when the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill—legislation that will safeguard free speech at university campuses—is being discussed in Parliament.

This will require universities and colleges to defend free speech and help stamp out unlawful “silencing” and will give the higher education regulator the power to impose fines on institutions if they breach this condition.

Overall, the report found that the pattern is very clear as the changes that have occurred are overwhelmingly in one direction—towards more support for restricting freedom of expression on campus.

Some examples included that 79 percent of students believe "students that feel threatened should always have their demands for safety respected" (up from 68 percent in 2016) while 4 percent disagree, down from 10 percent in 2016).

Sixty-one percent of students said, "when in doubt" their own university "should ensure all students are protected from discrimination rather than allow unlimited free speech," up from 37 percent in 2016.

And 77 percent of students believe there should be "mandatory training for all university staff" on understanding "other cultures" up from 55 percent in 2016.

'Uncompromising Attitude'

The "uncompromising attitude" of many students towards staff showed the proportion of students who think academics should be fired if they "teach material that heavily offends some students" is 36 percent over double the 15 percent in 2016.
Professor Eric Kaufmann is a professor of politics at Birkbeck College, University of London, and the author of "Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities." He has described the driving force behind cancel culture as “left modernism,” which he says is the contemporary hegemonic ideology in elite institutions.

"The whole philosophy which I call cultural socialism, as a religious form of wokeness, is dominant amongst students and younger people as well," he said adding that amongst the young, this ideology has taken precedence over free speech, due process, equal treatment, and other Enlightenment values.

Eric Kaufmann, professor of politics at Birkbeck College, London. (Screenshot via NTD)
Eric Kaufmann, professor of politics at Birkbeck College, London. (Screenshot via NTD)

He said that if the subject of free speech was not addressed, then the "centre-ground of public opinion" will be shifted.

"Those values which prioritise cultural socialism will simply permeate more deeply into our institutions, such as universities, private sector organisations, government agencies. It would just permeate more broadly and eventually shift the centre ground of public opinion, which is currently in favour of what I call cultural liberalism, which means free speech, due process, equal treatment. That is still the dominant view of society," he said.

But he added that cultural liberalism will no longer be dominant if nothing is done to "change the direction of the culture."

The author of the report and Director of HEPI, Nick Hillman, said that six years ago, when he first polled students on freedom of expression, David Cameron was Prime Minister and the Brexit referendum was still around the corner.

"We have discovered a very clear pattern. 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," he said.

Hillman said that 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," he added.

"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," said Hillman.

Refusing to Be 'Snowflakes'

"The HEPI results are not really surprising," said professor Dennis Hayes, president of Academics for Academics Freedom.

"They are a consequence of what Kathryn Ecclestone [professor of Education at the University of Sheffield] and I called 'the continuing dangerous rise of therapeutic education.' When the second edition of our book 'The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education' came out in 2019, we noted that the pupils who had been through school, who were constantly told they must always be safe and never emotionally offended, were now entering university. They were labelled the 'snowflake generation,'" he said.

Though he noted that there was hope as recently students have "been rejecting their past and present infantilisation" as always being seen as vulnerable.

"They are setting up free speech societies. They are refusing to be 'snowflakes,'" he said. "Free speech is the only way that infantilising can be challenged. Some students know this. They need encouragement," he added.

Hayes said that the trouble with surveys is that they "only reflect immediate feelings."

"If students were engaged in debate about these issues, they may well come to have different views. Passive responses are not good enough. It's time to have a debate about free speech and why it is important to students," he said.

“Although students formally support 'no platforming' political groups they are now more likely to target individuals for a variety of reasons. This is a reflection of the collapse of politics. Many of the more extreme political groups mentioned by HEPI barely exist today,” said Hayes.

Alexander Zhang and Simon Veazey contributed to this report.