Fewer than half of students consistently support freedom of speech and two fifths favour censorship and no-platforming of controversial speakers, research has shown.
A “culture of conformity” may also be having an effect on undergraduates, who are often too intimidated to espouse unpopular views on campus, according to a report by the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange.
Deep-rooted reform is needed at universities, which should establish academic freedom champions reporting directly to the vice-chancellor, it says.
The research exposes the extent to which a significant number of students value safe spaces for disadvantaged groups above freedom of speech.
A higher number of women were in favour of censorship and men were more likely to support academic freedom, polling found. Gender differences had a bigger impact on attitudes than whether respondents had backed Leave or Remain in the EU referendum.
However, Leave supporters were much less likely than Remainers to feel confident in voicing their view among classmates. Only four in ten said that they would be comfortable espousing their beliefs in tutorials, compared with nine in ten of those on the other side of the Brexit divide.
Policy Exchange polled more than 500 undergraduates aged between 18 and 25, weighted by gender to conform to the 57-43 female-male ratio of students. It found that the proportion of students consistently supportive of academic freedom ranged from three tenths to a half. The number could be skewed by narratives read before polling that emphasised the importance of protecting vulnerable students, or of protecting an exchange of ideas. Students were asked their opinions on blocking speeches by Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the House of Commons; the Canadian academic Jordan Peterson; and the feminist writer Germaine Greer.
The questions came after Cambridge University rescinded its offer of a visiting fellowship to Professor Peterson in March after a backlash from the faculty and students. The women’s officer at Cardiff University called for Greer to be no-platformed in 2015 for her “transphobic” views.