The Higher Education Policy Institute has released the only recent and detailed study on what UK students really think about free speech on campus, Keeping Schtum?: What students think of free speech Wave 2 of the HEPI / YouthSight Monitor.
The survey of over 1,000 full-time undergraduate students at UK higher education institutions covers: free speech; No Platform; gender segregation; safe spaces; trigger warnings; and even whether it is appropriate for student unions to ban the sale of tabloid newspapers.
The findings find some support for free speech:
- 83% of students feel able to express their opinions and political views openly
- 79% of students feel they have satisfactory protection against discrimination and emotional harm
- 60% of students think universities should never limit free speech
- 58% of students disagree that debating sexism and racism make them acceptable
- 57% of students express support for the idea that the best way to fight prejudice is to debate it rather than to ban it
However, the survey also shows large numbers of students believe there should be strict limits to free speech on campus:
- 76% of students express some support for the National Union of Students’ No Platform policy (and 27% think UKIP should be banned from speaking at universities)
- 68% of students support trigger warnings, in which lecturers warn students in advance of teaching difficult issues in case they wish to leave
- 52% of students think it is reasonable for universities to work with the police and the security services to identify students at risk of succumbing to terrorism
- 51% of students think universities should sometimes or always get rid of memorials to controversial historical figures
- 48% of students (55% of women and 39% of men) think universities should be safe spaces where debate takes place within specific guidelines
- 38% of students (45% of women and 29% of men) support student unions banning the sale of tabloid newspapers
Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and author of the new report, said:
“Many of today’s students are confused about one of the biggest issues facing higher education. Indeed, for some of them, illiberalism appears to be a way of protecting liberalism. While a majority of students think you should never limit free speech in principle, they are considerably less supportive in practice. Two-thirds of students want to hear trigger warnings before sensitive subjects are discussed in class and one-half want universities to be declared safe spaces.
“The results also suggest the Government’s controversial Prevent Strategy, which puts duties on universities to discourage terrorism, is not as unpopular among students as many people believe. Neither is the National Union of Students’ No Platform policy.
“These are inherently complicated issues but the pendulum may have swung too far away from favouring free speech. The soft support for freedom on campus challenges many of the core tenets of academia, such as the view that universities should sometimes be challenging, even difficult, places. Where else is there the time, resources and knowledge to discuss the issues facing the world?
“Higher education institutions should redouble their efforts to discuss the challenges, threats and limits to free speech with their students. Otherwise, no one can guarantee that higher education will continue to offer a space in which good ideas defeat weak ones through open debate.”