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05 December 2019

Students say freedom of expression more under threat in British society than in universities

Most students are relatively content with how their institution handles freedom of expression issues


Students in the UK are far more concerned about threats to freedom of expression in society than in their own universities, with only a minority having heard about incidents where this freedom has been restricted on their own campuses, a new study finds.

  • 51% of students think freedom of expression is threatened in the UK overall, compared with 22% who say the same of their own universities.
  • 56% say rising political polarisation is contributing to this threat in the UK.
  • Just 12% of students say they have very or fairly often heard about incidents where freedom of expression has been inhibited in their own university.
  • By contrast, 46% say they have never heard of such incidents and 31% say they haven't heard of them very often.

The research, by the Policy Institute at King's College London, is based on some of the most comprehensive survey data on attitudes towards freedom of expression in the UK, using a sample of over 2,000 students and over 2,000 members of the general public for comparison, which is much larger than previous studies.

On the approaches being taken to deal with freedom expression issues in universities, the study finds that most students are relatively content with how their institution handles them:

  • 73% say debates and discussions in their university are civil, respecting the rights and dignity of others.
  • 73% say universities are taking seriously the need to protect students from hatred so that everyone can enjoy an equal right to express themselves freely.
  • 63% say free speech and robust debate are well protected in their university.
  • 45% disagree that "safe-space" policies and a culture of "safetyism" in universities are threatening freedom of expression, compared with 35% who agree.

However, some students do still feel inhibited from voicing their opinions:

  • 25% say they are unable to express their views at university because they're scared of disagreeing with their peers.
  • 59% of Conservative-supporting students say those with conservative views are reluctant to express them at their university, although significantly fewer – 34% – say they themselves feel unable to express their views at their institution.
  • Among students of other political affiliations, 24% of Labour supporters, 22% of Lib Dems and 20% of Greens say they feel unable to express their views.

There is also significant agreement between university students and the general public on the value of freedom of expression and related issues:

  • 81% of students and 78% of the general public say freedom of expression is now more important than ever.
  • 55% of students and 58% of the general public say rising political polarisation is a threat to freedom of expression in the UK.
  • 64% of students and 60% of the general public say young people today are less accepting of challenging and offensive speech than young people in the past.
  • 86% of students and 84% of the general public say widespread use of social media has allowed people to express intolerant views.
  • While the majority of students and the general public agree that violence should not be used to suppress hate speech, 26% of students and 20% of the public think it is acceptable in such cases.

Finally, analysis of the survey data identifies three distinct groups within the student population who differ in their views on how to respond to perceived problems with freedom of expression in UK universities:

  • The “Contented” (56%) represent most students and implicitly trust their institution to respond appropriately.
  • The “Activist” group (23%) feel strongly that their university is taking seriously the need to protect freedom of expression and that it should actively shield students from hatred and offensive or intolerant views.
  • The “Libertarian” group (20%) resist intervention in all but extreme cases and feel strongly that it is not their university’s place to shield students from uncomfortable facts and unpopular ideas.

Professor Jonathan Grant, Vice-President/Vice-Principal (Service) at King's College London, said:

“Despite a growing narrative that universities are suppressing uncomfortable facts or unpopular views, most students do not think freedom of expression is under threat at their institution and few have encountered incidents where people have been prevented from voicing their opinions. In fact, the majority of students appear relatively happy with how their university deals with such issues. But that doesn’t mean more can’t be done to ensure that everyone – especially those on the right of the political spectrum – feel comfortable in discussing and debating their views. However, exactly what should be done is complicated by the existence of two distinct groups of students, who while both having strong views on this subject would like to see completely contrasting approaches to addressing it.”

Download the full report, Freedom of expression in UK universities

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