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Freedom of expression in universities

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The Policy Institute produced a report on UK student attitudes to freedom of expression using some of the most comprehensive survey data on this issue to date.

The analysis, based on a sample of over 2,000 students and over 2,000 members of the general public for comparison, shows that students are far more concerned about freedom of expression in wider society (51 per cent) than in their own university (22 per cent).

The study also reveals that only a minority (12 per cent) of students say they have very or fairly often heard of incidents where freedoms have been restricted in their institutions and most are broadly supportive of how their university supports freedom of expression. However, there are signs of a “chilling effect”, where some students (25 per cent) are reluctant to express their views for fear of repercussions.

Other findings include:

  • 81 per cent of students think that freedom of expression is more important than ever, with 86 per cent specifically concerned that social media is enabling people to express intolerant views – mirroring trends in the UK population overall (78 per cent and 84 per cent, respectively).
  • 73 per cent say universities are taking seriously the need to protect students from hatred, whilst 45 per cent disagree that "safe-space" policies and a culture of "safetyism" in universities are threatening freedom of expression, compared with 35 per cent who agree.
  • 59 per cent of Conservative-supporting students say those with Conservative views are reluctant to express them at their university. In comparison, 24 per cent of Labour supporters, 22 per cent of Lib Dems and 20 per cent of Greens say they feel unable to express their views.
  • While the majority of students and the general public agree that violence should not be used to suppress hate speech, 26 per cent of students and 20 per cent of the public think it is acceptable in such cases.

Student experience of freedom of expression in UK universities: working paper from an exploratory study

August 2020

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