Ministers have warned that students are showing “shocking growth in support for censorship” after a survey revealed that many favoured safety and avoidance of discrimination over unrestrained free speech.
The survey by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) found that current students are more likely to support measures that restrain freedom of speech or expression on campus, and approve of removing offensive materials and memorials, compared with their predecessors six years ago, when it last conducted the survey.
Nick Hillman, Hepi’s director, said the survey showed “a very clear pattern” of a majority of students preferring interventions such as trigger warnings on course content and restrictions on speakers.
“In 2016, we found considerable ambivalence and confusion about free speech issues. Now it is clear most students want greater restrictions to be imposed than have tended to … in the past,” Hillman said.
“This may be primarily for reasons of compassion, with the objective of protecting other students, but it could also reflect a lack of resilience among a cohort that has faced unprecedented challenges.”
But Michelle Donelan, the higher education minister for England, said the report “shows a shocking growth in support for censorship across a wide range of indicators”. “University leaders can no longer afford to stand aside, but must take active steps to combat these intolerant attitudes on campus, both promoting and protecting free speech,” she said.
“We cannot allow our young people – the future of this great country – to feel like their free speech is being stifled and that they have to bow to the majority opinions on campus.”
Of the 1,000 students surveyed, 61% said they wanted to “ensure that all students are protected from discrimination rather than allow unlimited free speech”, compared with 37% in 2016. Just 17% of students supported “ensuring unlimited free speech on campus, although offence may occasionally be allowed” – fewer than the 27% who agreed in 2016.
The results also revealed that many students felt universities were “becoming less tolerant of a wide range of viewpoints”, with 38% agreeing and 27% disagreeing. But there was a clear division between men and women, with 51% of men agreeing compared with 28% of women.
The use of trigger warnings for uncomfortable course content appears to be strongly endorsed by students themselves, with 86% agreeing that they should sometimes or always be used and just 14% opposing them. In 2016, 32% of students opposed their use.
Many more students now support religious or special interest groups being consulted about on-campus events – 64%, compared with 40% in 2016 – while 77% agreed that staff should receive compulsory training in cultural awareness.
There was smaller but growing support for more direct restrictions, including 36% who agreed that academics should be fired for using material that “heavily offends” students – more than double the 15% who agreed in 2016.
A growing minority also supported removing Holocaust denial or racist literature from university libraries, although more than a third of students wanted all material to remain.
Only 20% said they supported cancelling events that were legal but made some students unhappy. About a third supported protests outside the event itself.
The survey revealed little interest in banning political parties or organisations from campus. Only 26% wanted a ban on the far-right English Defence League, while 19% wanted to ban the British National Party and 12% wanted to ban the Communist Party of Great Britain.
There was little support for banning mainstream political parties, with 11% wanting a ban on the Conservatives, 5% a ban on Labour, and a further 5% a ban on the Liberal Democrats.