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Students want freedom from discrimination and freedom of speech

There's new HEPI findings on student attitudes to discrimination and free speech - but what does the data actually say? David Kernohan has your back.
This article is more than 1 year old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Twelve per cent of students do not feel able to express their opinions openly and without restriction on campus.

Although that isn’t many, those of you firing up the outrage machines will already have spotted that is more than one in ten. But stay with me – this story gets more nuanced.

This polling from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) uses a small sample, but we do get a range of splits to examine. The quality of responses is variable – for example asking students who they voted for in 2019 probably felt like a good idea at the time, but in practice only current third years would have been eligible to vote.

Safe from harm

The twelve per cent of the sample that said “no” on freedom of expression are actually made up of 10 per cent who said “probably not” and two per cent who said “absolutely not”. In all we are talking about 120 students here, and with small numbers we need to be very careful.

But the 17 per cent of Asian students that do not feel able to express themselves is significant. And so is the astonishing 36 per cent of students who do not feel protected on campus and also feel unable to express themselves.

Meanwhile, 61 per cent of the sample agree that universities shouldn’t limit free speech, and 48 per cent support the establishment of a “free speech champion” in the Office for Students.

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HEPI’s finding that students generally believe that for students protection from discrimination trumps the right to free speech is – on that calculus – a pro-free speech finding. In order to feel comfortable in expressing yourself, you need to feel comfortable in the environment you are in. Casting students as “pro-censorship” is very much a negotiated reading of these findings.

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Note this chart should be seen indicative of relative levels of supports – the numbers involved in both “do not” categories are very small (120 and 128, respectively).

Trigger warning

Students in this survey are also pretty clear about the steps providers should take to help their peers feel comfortable enough to express themselves. There’s a growth in support for so-called “trigger warnings” (better described as allowing students to understand what they are about to be confronted with before they are confronted with it) and “safe spaces” (again, better described as zero tolerance for threatening or discriminatory behavior).

There’s a keenness on training for staff in understanding other cultures, and support for NUSs (limited and documented) no platform policy, that prohibits speakers from six known extremist groups.

And the “student voice” on this issue now speaks more clearly than in 2016. The last six years have seen a movement towards favouring protection from discrimination even if this means occasionally placing limits on free speech. But why?

Am I so out of touch?

It is fair to see a further shift towards freedom from harm (which, to be fair, was already a clear winner back in 2016) as a response to attacks in the press and by ministers. People who are attacked for their opinions do tend to entrench themselves, and the “air war” from ministers and acolytes has ranged from “snowflake students” to “leftwing madrassas”.

It is perhaps possible to be in favour of freedom of speech without being in favour of gratuitous harm as a form of self-promotion, and in more sober times it might be possible to plot some kind of a middle ground. Or, as our minister has chosen to do, you could ignore the nuance and decry a “shocking growth in support for censorship” and young people having to “bow to the majority opinions on campus”.

To see these results and the accompanying analysis as the policy embodiment of the Principal Skinner meme (“it is the children who are wrong”) is a bit of a cheap shot. But there is some value in asking questions about why we are happy to cast students as consumers when holding universities to account on other matters but not on this one.

5 responses to “Students want freedom from discrimination and freedom of speech

  1. When did ideas you don’t agree with or opinions you don’t like become harmful or unsafe to hear?

  2. Well, maybe if you’re black and someone says that black people are going to take over the country: there will be rivers of blood.
    Or if you don’t want to be pregnant and someone explains that abortion clinics are in the business of murder.
    Or if someone tells a court that you were open to sex because of the underwear you chose.
    And so on, and on, and on.
    The thing is that it’s easy to think that only sticks and stones can break your bones if you’ve never been on the receiving end of those words that will never hurt you.

    1. Perhaps we shouldn’t study demography if long term population change might cause upset? Or ban religion to help with your second example?

      We should not be coddling our students. Let’s produce graduates who can argue their case, not run away from debate with their fingers in their ears.

    2. I fully agree with you David. Let’s ban people from saying words that we perceive might hurt us. Then no-one will ever have to hear hurtful words. Our discourse will be fortified as the right (not best) ideas are easily identified. Our individual resilience will develop to face the inevitable challenges of mortality and the stress of living in complex societies. Our religions or personal belief systems can co-exist in censorious harmony.

  3. “Cheap shot” or not, isn’t it possible that in this case “it *is* the [students] who are wrong”? One aim of higher education is to help individuals develop advanced critical thinking skills (e.g. the value of principles like freedom of speech, despite their sometimes uncomfortable consequences).

    If asked ‘should lawyers defend those accused of [insert horrible crime here]’, many people would likely say no. But it doesn’t mean we should dilute that principle.

    Right now an economic crisis is unfolding in a highly charged UK social and political context. It’s not inconceivable that a demagogue more cunning than Trump could surge to power. Do we really want to give more power to institutions and authorities to decide what kind of speech is ‘harmful’ and therefore not permitted?

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