Only around a quarter of the public in England support “decolonising” the curriculum, a survey suggests.
Support for universities is weaker amongst older people, Leave voters and less affluent socio-economic groups, according to a poll from the UPP Foundation and Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi).
People are largely hostile or in two minds about universities “decolonising” the curriculum to remove material which reflects “a western-dominated view” of the world, it found.
Nearly a third (31%) of the public are against it, 33% neither agree or disagree, and only 23% support it, the survey found.
The findings come as universities are under pressure to reform their curriculum content to ensure there is greater diversity in the texts studied by students, as well as to confront the legacy of colonialism.
At times, it feels like universities are in the middle of a never-ending culture war, with protagonists from both sides stoking division and polarisation
Richard Brabner, UPP Foundation
A number of institutions have pledged to take action to address the awarding gap for ethnic minority students, as white students on average are more likely to obtain a top degree than black and minority ethnic (BAME) students.
Despite the low support for decolonising the curriculum, the findings suggest universities can find widespread public support while changing the syllabus if they are presented thoughtfully.
When asked about broadening the curriculum to take in people, events, materials and subjects from across the world, more than two in three (67%) of the public said they approved – with just 4% against.
The Black Lives Matter movement inspired more campaigns to diversify the curriculum.
The survey, of more than 2,000 adults in England, suggests that demand for studying a degree remains high, with nearly half (46%) saying they would want to attend university if they were leaving school now.
Just over one in four (26%) of the public said they would not opt for higher education if they were leaving secondary school now, but most parents said they want their children to go to university.
The poll, which was carried out by Public First, asked members of the public about the value of degrees, opinion on universities and campus culture.
It found that around a third of Leave voters (35%) were positive towards universities compared to more than half (53%) of Remainers.
Those who are more negatively inclined towards higher education have had less contact with universities, the survey found, with around a third (34%) of people in England saying they have never visited an English university and a further 32% saying they have not visited one in at least five years.
Richard Brabner, director of the UPP Foundation, said: “At times, it feels like universities are in the middle of a never-ending culture war, with protagonists from both sides stoking division and polarisation.
“But as our polling shows, the way we talk about contentious issues, such as decolonisation, can narrow or broaden appeal. This is an important lesson. There are gaps in support for the sector based on voting intention, age and class. If these gaps widen, universities will face a difficult future.
“To grow public support, we need to demonstrate our worth to people who do not typically engage with universities – that means adopting approaches which persuade. Linking our actions to their values.”
It is shocking that two thirds of adults have either never visited a university or not done so in the last five years
Nick Hillman, Hepi director
Nick Hillman, director of the Hepi, said: “Universities have been in the eye of the storm in recent years, with many people expressing strong and varied opinions on how they should change behaviour. So we set out to discover what people really believe by systematically measuring their views.
“It is good to see so much goodwill towards universities but, given the role universities play, it is shocking that two thirds of adults have either never visited a university or not done so in the last five years.
“How universities talk about their work and their changing role in society matters a great deal. To win over hearts and minds, their governors, staff and students should use inclusive language, do more to explain their contribution to the country and invite more people on to campus.”
Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said: “The level of hostility towards decolonising activity in UK higher education shows just how far we have to go to tackle systemic racism.
“Decolonising curricula benefits students from all backgrounds, but this activity is about more than just diversifying the material students are exposed to, and it should not have to be sanitised in order to win support.”
She added: “The Government’s rhetoric on this issue is deeply divisive and we should call it out rather than pandering to those who would seek to maintain universities as the preserve of a privileged few.
“Universities also need to do more to connect with the communities within which they are situated – cuts to jobs and courses at many institutions have severed links with local people and created a damaging impression about their priorities.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Academic freedom is essential on our university campuses and that’s why the government is delivering on its manifesto promise to introduce a bill in Parliament to promote and protect freedom of speech in universities.
“Universities must be places where staff and students are able to discuss ideas freely and learn about a range of views without the ‘chilling effect’ of censorship on campus.”