A new YouGov survey did not find “any evidence that students are more hostile to free speech than the general population” of the UK, shedding light on a topic that draws frequent ministerial interventions.
Sam Gyimah, the universities and science minister, has often criticised universities and students’ unions over free speech, telling The Times this week that there is “a culture of censorship in some of our universities”.
The Office for Students, England’s new regulator, has been tasked by the government with ensuring that universities uphold free speech, and it has powers to punish if institutions are deemed not to.
But the YouGov free speech survey – of 1,004 UK students, comparing the results with a survey of 1,636 adults – offers a different take on the issue. Students and the general public were asked whether they found nine controversial views offensive, and whether or not they believed a speaker with such views should be allowed to speak at a university.
“The results do not find any evidence that students are more hostile to free speech than the general population,” writes Matthew Smith, a data journalist at YouGov.
“Across the nine different speakers, for five there was essentially no difference between the proportion of students and the general public who would ban the speaker whose views they find offensive (between 0-4 percentage points in each case).
“Three speakers were more likely to be banned by students than the general public (by 8-13 percentage points), while the general public in turn is more likely to ban one speaker than students (by 16 percentage points).”
A speaker who believes that the Royal Family “should be abolished” was the one instance where YouGov found the general public more likely than students to say the speech should not be allowed.
Students were more likely than the general public to say that speech should not be allowed in the cases of those who say that vaccinations cause autism, transgender women are not “real women” and climate change is not caused by human actions.
“Of the five speakers that students and the general public both equally think should be prevented from speaking: one wants all religions banned; one believes terrorist attacks on Britain can be justified; one believes that God created the universe in six days; one wants all foreign migrants sent back to their countries of origin; and one is a Holocaust denier,” writes Mr Smith.
The Department for Education did not immediately respond to a request for comment.