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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Richard Adams, Education editor

Most students think UK universities protect free speech, survey finds

Students at Soas University of London protesting in 2017 against the Israeli ambassador being allowed to speak on campus.
Students at Soas University of London protesting in 2017 against the Israeli ambassador being allowed to speak on campus. Photograph: Mark Kerrison/Alamy

Most UK students say their universities are places of free speech and debate – although a growing number are aware of free speech being restricted on campus, a study published by King’s College London has found.

The analysis, by KCL’s Policy Institute, found that 65% of students agreed that “free speech and robust debate are well protected in my university”, a higher proportion than the 63% who felt that way in a survey three years ago.

But the survey of 1,500 current students found that one in four had “often” heard of incidents at their university where free speech had been inhibited, double the 12% who said the same in 2019. And 32% said they had not heard of any incidents, fewer than the 44% in 2019.

Students also displayed hostility towards speakers with offensive views but supported the government’s efforts to protect expression and debate on campus through its higher education freedom of speech bill, currently before parliament.

Bobby Duffy, the director of KCL’s Policy Institute, said the surveys showed a “large majority” of students thought universities were protecting free speech, at the same time as increasing minorities of students felt it was under threat.

“While students tend to be a little more sensitive to causing offence than the public, they are not the ‘snowflakes’ they are sometimes made out to be: it’s clear that they value free speech, with majorities supportive of measures to bolster it,” Duffy said.

“Universities should have confidence that the starting point on free speech is not as dire as it is 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.”

Nearly half the students surveyed thought universities were becoming less tolerant of a wide range of views, with 50% feeling that people with conservative views were reluctant to express them and 36% that those with leftwing views were reluctant to express them.

And 41% of students agreed that academics who taught material that offended students should be fired, while 39% agreed that student unions should ban speakers who could cause offence.

Most students said they knew nothing or very little about the new bill but after it was outlined to them, six in 10 supported it, including 71% who supported universities and student unions having to maintain free speech codes of conduct.

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