More students back firing lecturers who teach offensive material

Survey finds UK undergraduates appear a lot less supportive of free speech than they were six years ago

June 23, 2022
Walking the plank
Source: Alamy
Harsh: 36 per cent of students think academics who offend should be sacked

More than a third of UK undergraduates believe academics should be fired if they “teach material that heavily offends some students”, according to a survey that found that students appear to be a lot less supportive of free speech than they were six years ago.

Thirty-six per cent of the 1,000 students polled by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) felt that lecturers should be dismissed in these circumstances, compared with just 15 per cent who took part in a similar survey in 2016.

A significant majority (78 per cent) expressed support for mandatory training for all university staff to ensure that they “understand other cultures”, compared with 55 per cent six years ago, while only 34 per cent agreed that libraries should stock controversial resources for the purposes of academic study, down from 47 per cent.

The survey, published on 23 June, also found widespread backing for the use of “trigger warnings” in teaching. Thirty-four per cent of respondents said they should always be used to protect students from offence, and 52 per cent said they should be used if a topic was “especially controversial or shocking”. Only 7 per cent felt that such warnings were “over the top in a university environment”, down from 18 per cent in 2016.

Hepi director Nick Hillman, the report’s author, said he did not want the findings to be used to promote the view that students were “snowflakes”, but, he continued, “it does suggest there are some genuine issues here that these students think differently to those who went to university a few years ago, and universities need to engage with this”.

Mr Hillman said the steep increase in those who would support sacking lecturers who taught offensive material was “among the most worrying findings in the survey” because it suggested that a good proportion of students “don’t fully understand academic norms”.

The results emerged after University of Sussex professor Kathleen Stock faced a campaign from students at her institution who objected to her “gender-critical” views. Despite being backed by Sussex, she eventually resigned.

Mr Hillman said he got the sense that students were so concerned about protecting the rights of vulnerable groups on campus that they appeared willing to countenance some “pretty illiberal measures without thinking through always what the negative consequences of those measures could be”.

In the survey, 61 per cent of respondents said universities should “ensure that all students are protected from discrimination rather than allow unlimited free speech”, up significantly from 37 per cent in 2016. The proportion supporting unlimited free speech fell from 27 per cent to 17 per cent.

Thirty-nine per cent of respondents agreed that students’ unions should “ban all speakers that cause offence to some students”, up from 16 per cent in 2016. While one in four students backed bans on groups such as the far-right English Defence League, 11 per cent felt this should be extended to the ruling Conservative Party.


Print headline: Student thirst for free speech fades

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Reader's comments (8)

HEPI states that it is funded around 40% by universities and 40% by private organisations, so it's claim to independence seems legitimate. I find the survey alarming, at least in its implications for the humanities and perhaps, in due course, society at large.
Teaching an ethics class for computer scientists, I tell them about the importance of debate, the strentgh in a diversity of opinion, and the need to respect the fact that people inevitably will hold views different to one's own. I remind them, come exam time, that I'm going to mark them on the quality of their supporting arguments not on the opinions that they express... and even once asked a question "Should the examiner mark your opinions according to how well they align to their own ideas?" which brought some very interesting answers indeed! The echo-chambers of social media, where any idea not in conformity with groupthink is greeted with personal abuse against the person presenting it rather than any counterargument, has a lot to answer for. I use that as an example of how NOT to debate. Students come to university to learn, this will include things that challenge their thinking. The whole idea is that they should develop an open and enquiring mind as well as acquire knowledge in whatever subject they are studying.
The results of the survey are extremely worrying. It seems many students have a poor grasp of "reality". Since when does the fact that a few people may be offended, when other people express their own, different opinions, mean that they should be prevented from speaking? We are heading for the tyranny of the minority.
I couldn't agree more with these comments. Universities need to teach students as much about tolerance of lawful contributions to legitimate academic debates as they do about other kinds of diversity and inclusivity.
I once (for several years) had groups of medical students complain that I mentioned evolution while teaching embryology, so I'm not a huge fan of student-led calls for sacking lecturers. My personal litmus test is "is this person advocating cruelty towards others?" but I appreciate that this is still a subjective test.
This is worrying but not surprising. It is time to turn back to Universities being led by academics.
Very interesting, isn't it. Do/ should Universities 'lead' or 'follow' opinion...? Marketisation indeed tends towards giving the 'consumer what they want', rather than perhaps engaging in some developmental challenge. It seems that the art of debate and nuance is being somewhat diminished or lost, in favour of metaphorical (and sometimes literal) shouting and browbeating people with different views into utter submission. We all lose in the end.
Interesting to see these topics being debated in UK higher education. In Australia I've been working a viewpoint diversity on campus project which looks into these and related questions. It draws on some recent UK and US data. (For those interested) a long-read discussion paper here:


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