Study: Conservative Students Feel Unable to Express Views at UK Universities

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 19: Protestors try to remove barriers surrounding Parliament Sq
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A study has found that a majority of conservative students feel unable to express their political opinions at university.

Researchers at King’s College London’s Policy Institute asked 2,000 students their thoughts on free speech on campus. Fifty-nine per cent of Conservative-voting young Britons said they were reluctant to express their views at university.

They showed far greater reluctance than those on the left of the political spectrum, with just 37 per cent of Liberal Democrat and 36 per cent of Labour student voters expressing the same hesitation. Green party supporters were the most confident expressing their political views, with just 32 per cent expressing any reluctance to do so.

Overall, one-quarter say they feel unable to express their views because they are scared of disagreeing with their peers, according to the research published on Thursday.

However, the students also revealed that they think freedom of expression is more at risk in broader society than at university: 22 per cent of students believe freedom of speech is under threat at their institutions, but over half (51 per cent) think it is at risk in British society.

The sample was compared to answers from 2,000 members of the general public, with both groups finding some commonality. The vast majority of students (81 per cent) and the public (78 per cent) say that freedom of speech is now more critical than ever. Nearly two-thirds of both parties (64 per cent of students and 60 per cent of the general public) also think that young people today are less accepting of offensive or challenging speech than young generations of the past.

The findings come after centre-right think tank Policy Exchange found last month that the majority of Leave-supporting students feel unable to express their support for Brexit on campus. The report also warned that “academic freedom is being significantly violated” at British institution due to “forms of political discrimination” and a “culture of conformity”.

However, Policy Exchange also found that there was a reason for optimism, with there being a “noteworthy constituency of students who support free speech”.

One of the study’s co-authors, Professor Eric Kaufmann, told media last month that the success of cancel culture at British universities was not down to a majority comprised of average students, but a loud and organised minority of activists.

Discussing the example of Oxford Brookes University cancelling a speech by feminist artist Rachel Ara after she was branded “transphobic”, Professor Kaufmann said the move 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,” the academic said.

In February, the Conservative government announced some measures to protect freedom of expression on campus. However, Professor Kaufmann cast doubt on whether universities will follow through with the policy 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 Birkbeck College professor said.

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