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Toby Young
Thursday 14th November 2019

The Free Speech Crisis in Britain’s Universities


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. (To read more, click here.)

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