The Free Speech Crisis in Britain’s Universities
BY TOBY YOUNG
Only 39 per cent of British university students who support Brexit say they would be comfortable expressing their views in class compared to 89 per cent of Remain-supporting students. That is one of many depressing findings made by two academics who’ve just published a report for Policy Exchange on the state of academic freedom in the UK. They carried out a poll of 505 students to find out how much enthusiasm there is for free speech at Britain’s universities and the results make for grim reading. For instance, 26 per cent of students think Jacob Rees-Mogg should be prevented from setting foot on campus on account of his views on Brexit, compared to 52 per cent who oppose such a ban.
Some people will regard this as unimportant. So what if a minority of activists object to Jacob Rees-Mogg speaking at the students’ union and stage violent protests when he does, as they did last year at the University of the West of England? Does it really matter if three-fifths of Brexit-supporting students feel inhibited about expressing their views? According to the authors of the Policy Exchange report – Eric Kaufmann and Thomas Simpson – the reason we should care about this is partly because universities cannot thrive in the absence of free speech. “Universities in which academic freedom is robust produce, in the long run, powerful research,” they write. “Those in which it is fragile or compromised, in the long run, stagnate.”
But there’s another, equally important reason, which is that our democracy cannot flourish if there’s a clear bias towards one particular political point of view in our schools and universities. The 1996 Education Act requires state schools to present opposing political views in a ‘balanced’ way – a law more honoured in the breach than the observance, I’m afraid – but universities are under no such statutory duty. Which might explain why 83 per cent of lecturers vote for either the Labour Party, the Lib Dems, the SNP or the Greens, and only 11 per cent for the Conservatives, according to the latest data.
That wouldn’t matter so much if students were being exposed to right-of-centre viewpoints elsewhere on campus, but they aren’t, at least not on a comparable scale, as the Policy Exchange report makes clear. What about off-campus? Kuafmann and Simpson asked students where they acquired their opinion on free speech issues, like whether Jordan Peterson should be allowed to lecture at Cambridge, and 68 per cent said ‘social media’. Little wonder, then, that they agreed with the university’s decision to no-platform Peterson by a margin of 41 per cent – 31 per cent. If anything, social media companies are even more left-wing than university lecturers. A Pew poll of Americans in 2018 found that those who believe social media companies have a liberal bias outnumber those who think they have a conservative bias by a ratio of four to one.
You can see the effect of this lack of balance in the voting intentions of students. According to a recent poll, 81 per cent of students say they’re going to vote for left-of-centre parties in the forthcoming election, while just 11 per cent intend to vote for the Tories and three per cent for the Brexit Party. You might think young people have always been more likely to vote Labour than Conservative, but there’s a clear historical trend showing that the greater the percentage of 18-24 year-olds participating in higher education, the more likely they are to vote Labour. In 1987, when less than 20 per cent of young people went to university, Labour had a two point lead over the Conservatives among 18-24 year-olds. Today, according to a recent YouGov poll, 54 per cent say they’re going to vote Labour with just 13 per cent saying Tory.
No doubt one of the reasons Jeremy Corbyn is so popular among students is because he has promised to scrap tuition fees. But a lack of exposure to criticisms of his hard left ideology must also be a factor. Young people are taught about the horrors of fascism throughout their education, but few of them know about the genocidal crimes of Chairman Mao. Moa’s Great Leap Forward between 1958-62 was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 45 million people, roughly seven-and-a-half times the number of Jews that were killed over a similar number of years in the Holocaust.
Kaufmann and Simpson make various recommendations to safeguard free speech in our universities, most of them requiring government action. If Boris wins, that might happen, but with a surge in young people registering to vote I wouldn’t count on it. They might tip things in favour of the brutal old Stalinist they regard as a ‘magic grandpa’.
Toby Young is a broadcaster, writer and journalist. Follow him on twitter: @toadmeister