A report has warned that “academic freedom is being significantly violated” at British universities due to “forms of political discrimination”, with findings revealing that only four in ten Brexit-voting students feel comfortable sharing their political opinions.
Centre-right think tank Policy Exchange found that while British universities are world-leading, there is a concern that a “culture of conformity” is stifling academic rigour.
While the authors raised that instances of no-platforming and “cancel culture” of high-profile figures have garnered media attention, they warn there could be a “much wider and invisible problem”. The report considers the unknown number of staff who may have lost their jobs over their politics or students who suppress their viewpoints in “fear for one’s prospect of a degree” or employment.
The reported revealed that, for instance, in the case of Leave-supporting students, only four in ten (39 per cent) said they would be comfortable expressing that view in class.
However, despite the culture of conformity threatening academic freedom, “our results show that, nonetheless, there is reason for optimism. For one, there is a noteworthy constituency of students who support free speech.”
The report continued that there a “significant proportion of students are consistently supportive of academic freedom. This figure is likely to be between three out of ten to a half of students.”
Speaking to Sky News on Thursday, one of the study’s co-authors, Policy Exchange senior fellow Professor Eric Kaufmann, pointed to a loud and organised minority of activists that are very successful at forcing cancel culture in their institutions.
Regarding activists at Oxford Brookes University recently cancelling a speech by feminist artist Rachel Ara because she was deemed ‘transphobic’, Professor Kaufmann said the decision was not “democratic at all”.
“It’s a set of very highly-networked, radical trans-activist students and their allies who are able to network and martial pressure on the university and then the university has capitulated and agreed to cancel this event. I think the majority of students and faculty are simply not involved in this,” Professor Kaufmann said.
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On the topic of silent Brexiteers in universities, the Birkbeck College professor remarked: “If there are roughly eight students who are Remainers for every one Brexiteer, it means, partly, that it is very difficult in a classroom setting for Brexiteers to speak up. So only fewer than four in ten Brexit-voting or supporting students said they would be comfortable raising that viewpoint in class compared to almost nine in ten Remainers being comfortable to express a Remain view.”
Political discrimination in the rental market was exposed earlier in the week, with one student telling The Telegraph that she was denied a room in a house-share after her prospective housemates found out through social media that she supports Brexit and the Conservative Party.
The Sky News presenter asked Kaufmann if it were the university’s responsibility to ensure a student body is not offended, with the professor replying: “No, I don’t. Part of the point of the university is to expose people to ideas which they may find offensive, and they have to learn the arguments against those ideas, so good ideas should drive out bad ideas. Protecting students from all forms of offence, or even from most forms of offence, should not be part of the university’s remit.”
“It’s the responsibility of the university to promote the value of academic freedom, and it’s the responsibility they’re largely not promoting, whereas they’re taking emotional safety much more seriously,” he added.
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In February, the British government announced that free speech would be “protected” at universities. However, Professor Kaufmann doubts that government plans will follow through at ground level as there are “simply fewer activists” interested in protecting free speech over “the emotional safety agenda”.
“People will agree with academic freedom in the abstract, but where there is a contest between that and the feelings of students, emotional safety will take precedence in many cases. It’s about correcting this imbalance and institutionalising more protections for academic freedom.”
The report, Academic Freedom in the UK written by Professor Kaufmann and Thomas Simpson, recommends that universities should “adopt an academic freedom commitment, such as the Chicago Principles, that clearly states that ‘debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed’”. Universities should also appoint an Academic Freedom Champion who has the “power to investigate complaints of political discrimination”.
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