Freedom of speech and extremism on campus: polling shows students least worried

Students are the least worried about issues of extremism and freedom of speech at universities according to new YouGov polling.

When asked how common or rare they think ‘Islamic extremism’ is in UK universities, 29 per cent of British adults said it is common, with concern highest amongst older people (55+). Over a third (36 per cent) of those aged 55+ believed Islamic extremism to be common, compared to 28 per cent who thought it is rare. By contrast, those of university age had the lowest level of concern. Only 17 per cent of 18-24 year olds believed Islamic extremism to be common, while 53 per cent said it is rare.

On issues of freedom of speech, after being shown a statement about freedom of speech in universities*, over half of the adults surveyed said they believed that it is under threat in universities (52 per cent) compared to 14 per cent who disagreed with the statement. Among all age groups, more people agreed that freedom of speech is threatened than not; but those aged 55+ were much more likely to think this (58 per cent) than those aged 18-24 (40 per cent).

The polling also showed that more people think that universities should always support freedom of speech within the law, even for people with extreme views (44 per cent), than think there are some views so offensive UK universities should not allow them (35 per cent). Men were more likely to support the maximal approach to freedom of speech than women (53 to 35 per cent).

These figures are released ahead of a wider project undertaken by the religion and society think tank Theos looking at speech and faith in the university sector, which is due to be published in Summer 2019.

Ben Ryan, Head of Research at Theos, says, “These data indicate that universities have become battlefields in a much broader set of disputes over the limits of liberalism and free speech and in society’s fears over extremism. The fact that these concerns are so much more common among older generations than among younger people may suggest that media and public debates are driving the narrative much more than the lived experience of people at university. Our own ongoing research on the ground in British universities is examining how these issues really play out in practice in the life of students and staff and will be published this summer.”

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