The Higher Education Policy Institute has just published a survey of British students’ attitudes to free speech. It’s basically a repeat of the survey they published back in 2016, which allows us to look at trends over time. Unfortunately, as Toby has already noted, they’re not pretty: students have become less supportive of free speech over the last six years.
One example is shown in the chart below. Respondents were asked which of two overall policies their university should favour.
Back in 2016, 27% said “Ensuring unlimited free speech” versus 37% who said “Ensure that all students are protected” – a 10-point gap. Yet by 2020, the percentages were 17% and 61% – a 44-point gap!
What’s more, students are in collective denial about the diminishing status of free speech on campus. In this year’s survey, only 38% agreed that “universities are becoming less tolerant of a wide range of viewpoints”. The rest were either unsure or said they disagreed. Unsurprisingly, women were substantially less likely to agree.
Interestingly, if we compare attitudes in Britain to those in America, there’s less evidence that things are getting worse. Since 2016, the Knight Foundation has carried out four surveys of American students’ attitudes to free speech, asking the same kinds of questions as the Higher Education Policy Institute.
The chart below shows results for a question in the Knight Foundation’s survey that’s almost identical to the one above.
The first thing to notice is that the majority of respondents said “Allowing students to be exposed to all types of speech” is more important than “Protecting students”. This doesn’t mean American students are more pro-free speech than British ones: once you get into specifics, levels of support for censorship are similar.
What’s also worth noticing is there hasn’t been a rise in the fraction of respondents saying “Protecting students” is more important than “Allowing students to be exposed to all types of speech”. (Although note that 17 percentage points of those who held the opposite view moved into the “No opinion” category.)
Another question that both surveys asked was about ‘safe spaces’. As shown below, the British survey found a noticeable increase in support for those policies – from 48% in 2016 to 62% in 2022.
However, the American survey found a noticeable decrease in support – from 87% in 2017 to ‘only’ 60% in 2021. This is shown in the image below. (The other two charts in the image show there’s no obvious trend in support for speech codes or speaker disinvitations either.)
Why the different trends in the two countries? One possibility is that American campuses reached a peak of opposition to free speech earlier than British ones, and the latter are now playing catch up. Which would make sense, given that American campuses are probably the global epicentre of woke ideology.
In any case, neither the British nor American surveys make for encouraging reading. A large fraction of students simply don’t endorse the kind of values that make truth-seeking possible. And that’s not going to change overnight.
Stop Press: Professor Doug Stokes told Darren Grimes on GB News why falling support for free speech among British students is something we should be concerned about.