29 September 2022
Free speech in universities: new data reveals student and public perceptions
Universities are seen to be protecting freedom of speech, but growing minorities have concerns
The state of free speech in UK universities: what students and the public think
Read the research
There is strong agreement among students that their university is protecting freedom of expression and robust debate, as well as academic freedom – but growing minorities nonetheless feel free speech is under threat at their institution, with perceptions of a “chilling effect” also increasing, according to a new study.
The research, by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, is based on two new representative surveys of UK university students, amounting to almost 2,500 polled, as well as several representative surveys of the general public, carried out to identify where views on these issues diverge between the two groups. The study was designed to allow comparisons with a previous survey carried out in 2019, to reveal trends in attitudes and perceptions since then.
There is strong agreement among students that free speech, robust debate and academic freedom are protected in their universities
- 65% of students now say free speech and robust debate are well protected at their institution, while 15% disagree with this view. And 73% report that debates and discussions in their university are civil, respecting the rights and dignity of others, with 10% disagreeing. Both sets of figures are largely unchanged from 2019.
- 80% of students also now say they’re free to express their views at their university, while 88% said the same three years ago. However, this is still higher than the 70% of the general public who say they feel free to express their views in UK society.
- The proportion of students who agree that academics are free to express their views at their university has also declined slightly, but still represents a strong majority, at 70% in 2022 compared with 77% in 2019, with 14% of students disagreeing.
- 75% of students say they are free from discrimination, harm or hatred – virtually the same as in 2019 (78%).
Universities are also seen to be doing (increasingly) well in handling protests: 55% of students say their university manages student protests fairly – up from 48% in 2019. And only 12% now disagree with this view, while 32% say they don’t know.
But at the same time, growing minorities of students feel freedoms are under threat in their institutions
34% of students say free speech is very or fairly threatened in their university – up from 23% in 2019. Similarly, 32% of students now feel academic freedom is threatened at their institution, compared with 20% who felt this way three years ago.
Despite these increases, a majority of students still feel these liberties are not at risk – for example, 59% still think free speech is either not very threatened or not threatened at all. And students are more likely to think free speech is under threat in UK society as a whole (53%) than it is at their university (34%).
Yet there is a growing perception that there have been specific cases where universities have fallen short on freedom of expression:
- 25% of students now say they very or fairly often hear of incidents at their university where free speech has been inhibited – double the 12% who said the same in 2019. However, a clear majority of 64% say they don’t hear about such incidents very often, or haven’t heard of them taking place at all.
- In 2019, 37% of students said that students avoided inviting controversial speakers to their university because of the difficulties involved in getting those events agreed – but this has now risen to 48%.
On top of this, half of students (49%) think universities are becoming less tolerant of a wide range of viewpoints – similar to the public’s perception (56%). And the belief that ideological tolerance is declining in higher education is much more common among students who say they’d vote Conservative (65%) rather than Labour (37%).
Perceptions of a “chilling effect” on speech are increasing – for both conservative and left-wing views
Half (50%) of students now feel that those with conservative views are reluctant to express them at their university, compared with 37% who said the same in 2019.
And this perception has grown in particular among students who say they’d vote for the Conservative party, rising from 59% to 68% over the last three years.
It is a similar story when it comes to left-wing views, with the proportion of students who say people are reluctant to express such opinions at their university more than doubling, from 14% in 2019 to 36% in 2022.
Large proportions of students also report that some people are prevented from saying things at their university because others may find them offensive – though perceptions of the situation in wider society are far worse:
- 51% of students think the climate at their university prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive, while 30% disagree that this is the case.
- 80% of the UK public overall think that the climate in UK society inhibits some people from speaking their minds, compared with 17% who disagree.
43% of students also report feeling unable to express their views in their university because they’re scared of disagreeing with their peers – an increase from 25% in 2019. Yet this is felt to the same extent among the general public, 43% of the public of whom say they’ve felt constrained from voicing their opinions in UK society more generally, for fear of disagreement with others.
But it’s clear there are sometimes a range of motivations for holding back opinions
Between a quarter and a third of students have held back their views on individual topics such as politics (36%), gender identity (34%) or the British empire (25%) because they feared what others might think of them – very similar to the general public. Overall, around two-thirds of both groups say they’ve refrained from voicing an opinion on at least one of the issues asked about.
Yet when people hold back from voicing their opinions in public, it is clear that it is not always due to a chilling effect on speech: among those who said they’d held back their views on at least one of topics asked about, 27% of students and 21% of the general public say they’d done so because they felt shy. The fact that they didn’t know enough about the topic was another factor identified by around three in 10 of each group.
But many have concerns that their views would have led to conflict, ridicule or worse – for example, among those who said they’d held back their views on at least one of the topics asked about, 41% of students and 53% of the public say they’ve held back opinions because they didn’t want to get into an argument, and 21% of students and 18% of the public say they’ve done so because they were concerned for their safety if they expressed their opinions openly.
Students and the public have different views on how to manage freedom of expression issues
But while students and the public say they have self-censored at broadly similar rates, with similar motivations for doing so, the two groups have quite different views about how to deal with issues of free speech and offence:
- 35% of the public believe that if you debate an issue like sexism or racism you make it acceptable – but this rises to 46% among students.
- Similarly, 41% of students agree that academics who teach material that offends some students should be fired, compared with 25% who feel this way among the public overall.
- And there is greater agreement among students (39%) than the public (26%) that students’ unions should ban all speakers that may cause offence.
There is very little awareness of the Free Speech Bill – but a majority say they support it when it’s explained to them, even if this will be a lightly held view
Nearly half (45%) of students say they’ve never heard of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, while another one in five (21%) say they’ve heard of it but only know very little about it, and a third (32%) say they’ve heard a lot or a little about the bill.
But once the bill is explained in outline terms to students, six in 10 students (60%) say they support it, and six in 10 of the general public (61%) say the same.
Majorities of students also support specific elements of the bill, when these are put to them. For instance, 71% support universities and students’ unions maintaining codes of conduct relating to freedom of speech.
Students are less certain on the introduction of a Free Speech Director who will oversee promotion of freedom of speech (57%), or on the possibility of prosecutions for universities that fail to secure freedom of speech (57%), but even here majorities of students say they back such measures.
Professor Bobby Duffy, Director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, said:
“This major new study reveals two main patterns – firstly, that the large majority of university students think their universities are protecting their freedom of speech, but secondly, that increasing minorities of students feel this is under threat and have heard of examples of free speech being inhibited.
“We can’t divorce these trends in universities from changes in wider society, where we’ve seen increasing focus on ‘culture war’ issues, which will influence student opinions. Indeed, students are much more worried about free speech being under threat in wider society than in their university. Equally, while students tend to be a little more sensitive to causing offence than the public, they are not the “snowflakes” they’re sometimes made out to be: it’s clear that they value free speech, with majorities supportive of measures to bolster it, including those contained in the Free Speech Bill.
“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. The government, in turn, need to ensure any measures are applied carefully and proportionately, including looking for positive measures to support free speech, not just regulating against it being curtailed.
“And we all need to calm down the rhetoric. As we see so often in our wider work on ‘culture war’ issues, debates are often painted as a battle between two utterly opposing worldviews, when the reality is much more nuanced and balanced, as this study shows.”
The data in this report is taken from a range of sources, including multiple new surveys of both UK university students and the UK public more generally. The findings of these surveys have then been compared with those from surveys carried out in previous years, to reveal trends and differences between population groups. Full details of the surveys are as follows:
The data in this study is taken from a range of sources, including multiple new surveys of both UK university students and the UK public more generally. The findings of these surveys have then been compared with those from surveys carried out in previous years, to reveal trends and differences between population groups. Full details of the surveys are as follows:
Newly carried out surveys
- A survey conducted online by OpinionPanel (YouthSight) of 1,537 current UK undergraduate students, interviewed 31 Aug-8 Sept 2022. Based on HESA statistics, the sample comprises national representation of gender, course year, and university type. The data is weighted on these factors.
- A survey conducted online by Savanta: ComRes of 2,293 UK adults aged 18+, interviewed 26-28 Aug 2022. Data were weighted to be representative of the UK population by age, gender, region and social grade.
- A survey conducted online by Savanta: ComRes of 2,351 UK adults aged 18+, interviewed 18-20 Sept 2022. Data were weighted to be representative of the UK population by age, gender, region and social grade.
- A survey conducted online by King’s College London of 896 current UK university students, interviewed 3-18 Aug 2022. Data were weighted to be representative of the UK university student population by gender, university type and course year.
- A survey conducted online by Ipsos UK of 2,931 people in the UK aged 16+, interviewed 13-19 Jan 2022. Data are weighted by age, gender, region, Index of Multiple Deprivation quintile, education, ethnicity and number of adults in the household in order to reflect the profile of the UK population
- A survey conducted online by OpinionPanel (YouthSight) of 2,153 UK undergraduate students, interviewed 29 July-2 Aug 2019. Based on HESA statistics, the sample comprises national representation of gender, course year, and university type. The data is weighted on these factors.
- A survey conducted by Gallup for the Knight Foundation of 3,014 US college students aged 18-24, interviewed 1 Nov-10 December 2017.