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What are students thinking about free speech now?

New research on student perceptions of free speech is in, and Bobby Duffy and Finlay Malcolm wonder whether both sides of the debate can find some sensible common ground
This article is more than 1 year old

Bobby Duffy is Director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London

Finlay Malcolm is a Research Associate at The Policy Institute, King’s College London

One of the defining features of “culture wars” is that the two sides can take completely opposing messages from the same set of facts. Belief and identity skew our perspective, and reality is bent to fit each tribe’s already held views.

Luckily, there is something for everyone in our new surveys of students and the public on freedom of speech in universities.

Universities have become a key arena for free speech debates, fuelled by rare but high profile and vitriolic examples of academics or visiting speakers being “cancelled”. To some, these are only the visible symptoms of a more systemic and subtle “chilling effect”, where minority views are suppressed by the groupthink of largely left-leaning staff and student bodies.

This is a very current political and policy debate, as the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill reaches its Committee stage in the Lords at the end of October. There are strong feelings for and against the Bill’s range of measures, which include appointing a free speech director and allowing students and staff to take legal action if they believe their free speech has been curtailed.

So what’s all the fuss about?

Many think this is an overblown response to a relatively minor issue – and parts of our surveys support that case. For example, two-thirds of UK students say that free speech and robust debate are well protected in their university, and only 13 per cent disagree. More importantly perhaps, Conservative or Leave supporters feel just as positive about this as Labour or Remain supporting students.

It’s even more emphatic at a personal level: 80 per cent of students think they’re free to express their own views at their university, and again, there is no difference between students with different political identities.

A chillier climate

But that’s only one side of the story. Our studies also show some worrying shifts that suggest the government and the Bill are on to something important.

For example, a quarter of students now say they have heard of incidents at their university where free speech has been inhibited, up from 12 per cent in our last study in 2019. There’s also been a big increase, to nearly half, in students saying that controversial speakers are not being invited to speak because of difficulties in getting the events agreed.

And again, at a more personal level, 44 per cent of students now agree they feel unable to express their views as they fear disagreeing with their peers. There is a very marked difference in comfort on this depending on your politics: for example, seven in ten Leave supporters say they are scared of expressing their views, compared with 36 per cent of Remain supporters.

The contrast between the answers to this question and the one mentioned above that shows eight in ten feel they’re free to express their views in their university shows how sensitive responses are to the very particular circumstances you ask about. When you frame the question as potentially leading to disagreement with peers, you get a much more fearful response from students. The detail matters, and we need to interpret responses with that in mind. Still, the change in fear of disagreeing with peers since 2019 is marked, from 25 per cent to 44 per cent now, which suggests something is shifting.

With (culture) war raging outside

Before picking your favourite evidence, it’s important to place the results in the wider context of the extraordinary increase in focus on “culture wars” in the UK as a whole, as shown in our series of previous studies: as one small example, “cancel culture” wasn’t referenced at all in UK newspapers in 2017, but there were 3,600 articles that used the term in 2021 alone.

This will partly explain the increasing sensitivity to free speech issues among students, and in some ways universities don’t come off badly as forums for open inquiry, compared with the UK as a whole. For example, while it’s worrying that 34 per cent of students think free speech is threatened in universities, that’s still lower than the 53 per cent who think free speech is threatened in the UK overall.

And while half of students agree the climate at their university prevents some people from saying things they believe because others may find them offensive, nearly 8 in 10 of the UK public agree the same is true for UK society. But, of course, universities should stand out as bastions of free thought, to fulfil a key role in moving society forward.

Practical steps in fraught times

My best attempt at a balanced reading of the results is that the threat to free speech in universities is not nearly as bad or particular to universities as some will make out – but, nonetheless, practical steps that help bolster free speech should be welcomed.

And students themselves seem to agree. While knowledge of the free speech Bill is extremely low, support is high, particularly for the more positive elements of universities being required to promote free speech and maintaining a “code of conduct”.

Of course, one of the key features of free speech is how vital the specific context is: it is easy to agree with the principle, but where you draw lines is fraught. The government has run into this challenge in trying to define “legal but harmful” in the Online Safety Bill.

In our study, nearly all students agree that it’s important for universities to allow all ideas and opinions to be expressed so that different sides of a debate can be heard. But support plummets if you add that those ideas make some students feel “threatened” or “unsafe”.

This presents a complex environment that universities and the government need to engage with positively. Universities should have confidence that the starting point on free speech is not as dire as it’s sometimes painted, but also recognise that it is too important an issue to overlook some concerning signs. The government, in turn, needs to ensure any measures are applied carefully and proportionately, including looking for positive steps to support free speech, not just regulating against it being curtailed.

And we all need to calm down the rhetoric and avoid creating simplistic division, when the reality is much more nuanced and balanced. We don’t always need to pick a side.

One response to “What are students thinking about free speech now?

  1. Who are these Leave and Remain supporters? You can’t leave or remain when you’ve left already. And it can’t mean positions taken in the referendum because hardly any of today’s students were old enough to vote. Or is is that students spend their time debating whether the referendum result was right or wrong? Doesn’t seem likely.

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