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The free speech problem is a crisis of confidence

Are there students afraid to speak on campus, and if so why is that? Jim Dickinson uncovers the anxiety and confidence issues underpinning the silencing of student opinion
This article is more than 1 year old

Over the past few years of frenzied press coverage and intense think tankery over the issue of campus free speech, there’s been plenty of polling purporting to prove this or that.

We’ve had surveys that tell us about self-censorship, pamphlets that profess to show a culture of campus “silent” no platforming, and polling data that invites alarm at students’ apparent preference for safety rather than freedom.

But one thing that’s been consistently frustrating about the findings has been the lack of intel on why students are responding the way they are.

And when you count students like lab rats rather than engage with them, it’s easy to project your own assumptions and prejudices, as you short cut “why” students are self-censoring or demanding that others do the same.

So as part of our work with our partners at Cibyl and a group of “pioneer” SUs – where we’ve been developing a new kind of monthly student survey designed to help SUs and their universities not just know students’ opinions, but understand and learn from their lives too – we thought we’d try to find out what’s been going on with this issue of free speech.

Results are from January and February, around 90 higher education providers are covered and the sample of around 1600 has been weighted for gender and age.

The least of our worries

First some headline quantitative findings. We asked pretty much the same the question that’s been in this year’s National Student Survey – and while we can’t be sure that the eventual result will be the same (we only polled universities for a start) what we can say is that the net positive score for this sample is 86 per cent, with a third saying they feel “very” free.

During your studies, how free did you feel to express your ideas, opinions and beliefs?

  • Very free 33%
  • Free 53%
  • Not very free 12%
  • Not at all free 3%

In our sample that’s a net positive that’s higher than on any other question we asked on teaching quality, academic support or learning resources – and as it’s higher than the questions on assessment and feedback as well, suggests that OfS ought to be recruiting a new Director for Condition B4 rather than whatever code it will give the new free speech duty in the regulatory framework.

The cross-tabs tell a tale. Men are almost ten percentage points higher than women on “very free”, although there’s gender consistency across the two “not free” options. Disabled students felt less free than non-disabled peers, privately educated students felt more free than those from the state system, and those eligible for means-tested bursaries were less confident than those who weren’t.

If your instinct is to assume that the “real” free speech issue is one where disadvantaged groups feel oppressed on campus, there’s plenty in here for you.

Running the numbers on community also shows some startling differences, although this obviously one where your instinct (and likely your age and views on Brexit) push you towards different causation directions for the evident correlation:

I feel part of a community of students and staff
During your studies, how free did you feel to express your ideas, opinions and beliefs?Strongly agreeAgreeDisasgreeStrongly disagree
Very free60%28%19%9%
Not very free4%10%23%32%
Not at all free1%1%4%14%

As ever though, it’s the qualitative comments that really open up the understanding – and on this one, they’re fascinating.

Something for everyone

For those (like me) determined to believe that there is no issue on campus, and that this is all a huge right wing conspiracy, I have bad news.

A decent chunk of the answers suggest that the press and the pundits are right – and that “cancel culture” for those with right wing or socially conservative views is at least felt as real:

  • I feel only a certain type of opinion is allowed at university (extreme left wing), any other part of the political spectrum is condemned by students. I do not feel I can openly express my centrist opinions nor safely discuss them sometimes.
  • We were asked to give opinions but then the lectures would disagree and disregard them.
  • Not a big fan of being forced to attend a class about gay history really. I believe all of this forcing everyone to live in a deluded version of whatever gender identity people want to pick and whatnot is ridiculous. That said, of course I respect people in general, as long as they’re also kind to me, but I don’t like the fact that there’s a stigma against people who decide not to entertain that sort of delusion.
  • I feel there is a very specific view point allowed at university and that is strong left wing. Any other view point be it central or right is completely villainised.

For those of us determined to see the students at the other end of the freedom from harm/freedom to speak see-saw, there’s material there too:

  • I like to believe that the university allows students, staff, and various other folks at the university their freedom of expression, but I feel stigmatized.
  • The students on my course are majority white students and I often feel intimidated to speak about certain things
  • Northern state school students are minorities. Don’t really have voices here. Tends to be posher middle class private school educated students who are heard
  • Mature students aren’t part of the majority and what I have said in the past tends to get ignored.

But in reality, the comments above form the minority of the responses attached to free speech negativity. The bulk of comments fall into three other categories – the first being about subject:

  • Engineering doesn’t leave much room for opinion like other courses
  • Not a lot of room in my degree for expression
  • My course doesn’t necessarily allow me to express my freedom as everything is researched based with facts.
  • We don’t get to do lot of opinion talk, as it is more of a science based course.

So many of the pundits, wanging on about “debate” being a purpose of higher education, forget that while there may well be debate that surrounds STEM or vocational subjects, the idea of having an intellectual barney as a core bit of teaching and learning isn’t something that makes sense in many students’ minds.

The second big batch isn’t about what the SU President has said on social media or the EDI awareness week that the university is “imposing” – it’s about teaching format and student diversity:

  • Most of the times the lectures are heavily packed and also not much time left to think and express ideas
  • Barrier of language mostly.
  • On zoom it was difficult to express much
  • Lecture theatres make it harder to express things, I don’t want to shout in a hall full of people, it’s awkward, especially if asked to repeat myself.

That all suggests that it’s massification and the thinning out of the unit of resource that’s the enemy of an environment where students can think out loud.

But the most common type of comment? Anxiety and confidence:

  • I have anxiety. Tends to get in the way.
  • I prefer to not do it, but I am aware that I have the opportunity to.
  • In lectures and seminars there is often complete silence. The unanimity of asking a question or communicating becomes daunting when you’re the only one.
  • Fear you’ll be laughed at or judged if you get it wrong
  • In terms of lectures, the students in my class feel shy to share opinions which affects me when I want to share.
  • Again this is a personal thing I don’t often like expressing my points of view in person to people I don’t know very well. Also they probably won’t be listened to so I don’t see the point.
  • I feel very free amongst my other students in our WhatsApp groups (not governed by the university). However, freedom of expression in support sessions often ends up not occurring as everyone is anxious due to how the class has been set up.
  • Once in class I simply got one word mixed up with another and the lecturer laughed and said. ‘yes…well…they do mean the same thing so that has already been stated.’ Making me and also my fellow students reluctant to ask any questions at all as we then feel some questions are ridiculous to ask. How are we to express our thoughts if we feel we will be ridiculed or made to feel ridiculous?

Here we go again on my own

Why have we been missing this for so long? It’s partly about wanting to find the results that confirm our prejudices, I expect. It’s partly that those of us confident enough to wang on about the subject can’t imagine not having the confidence to speak in a seminar. And I suspect that it’s partly the sector not wanting to admit that the confidence it “imbues” may well be more about who the sector used to recruit than who it now graduates.

We’ve been here before, of course.

In the folklore we imagine that the admissions system filters in students who are “ready” – by which, in many cases, we meant similar in backgrounds and status, highly articulate and confident, and feeling cushioned enough to be able to take risks.

That just isn’t the reality of our hyper-diverse campuses now, and coupled with what we know about the impact of the pandemic on mental health and anxiety, suggests that the ”solution” to the “problem” is about being more deliberate and proactive about building the confidence of new starters to contribute – and designing learning activities that allow for that building.

I’m already weary from hearing of universities considering tick-box online module twaddle as the answer to the free speech “positive duty” question – almost as weary as I am at the idea that the harassment and sexual misconduct duty is do-able in this way too.

The opportunity on both of those agendas and more is to reimagine transition – not just from a “what do they all need to know” point of view, not from a “what do some of them need to know” perspective, and not from a “throw this at them and we have achieved OfS compliance” point of view either.

Proper peer-delivered paddling in the shallow ends of university life is what’s required – and if that means making room for it in the term structure or credits of a programme, so be it.

You can find out more about Belong in our launch brochure here.

One response to “The free speech problem is a crisis of confidence

  1. This is a really important and welcomed piece in my view. You only need to look at what Oxford’s SU recently attempted to do (which happened after this article) to know that students, staff and everyone in between, is being silenced or pushed into a particular politicised way of thinking in the name of EDI, when it’s really just a political football (usually not supporting the right-wing views as you have suggested).

    While mentioning ‘right-wing’ the article near the beginning uses the term “gender consistency”, which from a right-wing perspective, should probably say “sex” instead 😉 What a minefield!

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