Most UK students ‘don’t think free speech under threat’ on campus

King’s College London survey finds ‘significant agreement’ between students and the public ‘on the value of freedom of expression’

December 5, 2019

“Only a minority” of UK students have heard about incidents where freedom of expression has been restricted in their own university, and there is “significant agreement” between students and the public “on the value of freedom of expression”, according to a survey.

The research, published by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, bills itself as having amassed “some of the most comprehensive survey data for the UK on student attitudes towards freedom of expression”.

The notion of a “free speech crisis” in UK universities has become a popular subject for right-wing newspapers and sections of the Conservative Party, importing a similar discourse from the US right.

The Policy Institute researchers commissioned an online survey of 2,153 UK students conducted by YouthSight, along with an online survey of 2,179 members of the public carried out by Ipsos MORI.

Their paper reports: “[Eighty-one] per cent of students think that freedom of expression is more important than ever, with 86 per cent specifically concerned that social media is enabling people to express intolerant views – mirroring trends in the UK population overall (78 per cent and 84 per cent, respectively).”

It also says: “Most students consider freedom of expression to be more threatened in the UK overall than in their own university. On average, just 12 per cent of students hear about such incidents [in their university] very or fairly often. By contrast, 46 per cent say they have never heard of such incidents and 31 per cent say they don’t hear of them very often.”

The survey did find that 26 per cent of students “think it is acceptable to use violence” to prevent people expressing “hateful views”. But this was “not dramatically higher” than the 20 per cent of the public who took the same stance, the paper says.

It also finds that 45 per cent of students disagree that “safe space” policies and a culture of “safetyism” in universities are threatening freedom of expression, compared with 35 per cent who agree.

The survey also reports that 59 per cent of Conservative-supporting students say those with conservative views are reluctant to express them at their university, although a lower proportion of these students, 34 per cent, say they themselves feel unable to express their views at their institution.

Meanwhile, 24 per cent of Labour-supporting students, 22 per cent of Liberal Democrat backers and 20 per cent of Green supporters say they feel unable to express their views.

The researchers identified three groups of students: the “contented” (56 per cent), who “implicitly trust their institution to respond appropriately”; the “activist” group (23 per cent), who “feel strongly that their university is taking seriously the need to protect freedom of expression and that it should actively shield students from hatred and offensive or intolerant views”; and the “libertarian” group (20 per cent), who “resist intervention in all but extreme cases and feel strongly that it is not their university’s place to shield students from uncomfortable facts and unpopular ideas”.

Jonathan Grant, vice-president for service at King’s, one of the authors of the report, said: “Despite a growing narrative that universities are suppressing uncomfortable facts or unpopular views, most students do not think freedom of expression is under threat at their institution, and few have encountered incidents where people have been prevented from voicing their opinions.

“In fact, the majority of students appear relatively happy with how their university deals with such issues.”

Professor Grant added that this “doesn’t mean more can’t be done to ensure that everyone – especially those on the right of the political spectrum – feel comfortable in discussing and debating their views.

“However, exactly what should be done is complicated by the existence of two distinct groups of students, who while both having strong views on this subject would like to see completely contrasting approaches to addressing it.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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Better to allow liars to spout their lies. It makes it easier to identify them.

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