Right-wing academics feel need to ‘self-censor’ political beliefs on campus

·4-min read
Study will fuel fears about freedom of speech and tolerance of dissenting views at universities - FatCamera/E+
Study will fuel fears about freedom of speech and tolerance of dissenting views at universities - FatCamera/E+

Three in four right-leaning academics say they are having to hide their political views on campus, according to a new report which warns of a higher education “monoculture” in which large numbers of lecturers “openly dislike” those who aren’t left wing.

A study by the Legatum Institute, a centre-right think tank, found that 75 per cent of right-wing academics sometimes felt the need to “self-censor” their political beliefs while on campus, compared to 35 per cent of left-wing academics.

At the same time, most academics stated that they disliked people who vote for right-wing parties at elections, according to the report

Some 70 per cent of those who identified as left wing indicated that they disliked right-wing voters, compared to 36 per cent of right-wing academics who disliked left-wing voters.

The study, which will fuel fears about freedom of speech and tolerance of dissenting views at universities, is based on a survey of 650 academics - almost half of whom were professors - at the top 12 universities in the UK, Australia, Canada and the US.

In the UK, 35 per cent of academics said they felt the need to hide or self-censor the beliefs on campus, compared to 50 per cent in the US, 44 per cent in Canada and 39 per cent in Australia.

Concerns over academic freedom

Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics at Kent University and a fellow at the Legatum Institute, who carried out the study, said: “Academic freedom has long been central to prosperity in the UK and around the world. Yet our findings suggest there are good reasons to be concerned about the extent to which it is being preserved and promoted by our universities.

“We find that academics in the social sciences lean heavily in only one ideological direction while remarkably large numbers of them are concealing their real views when on campus, fearful about what will happen if they are revealed. This should not be happening in a mature, liberal democracy.

“The good news is that large numbers of academics do say they are committed to academic freedom. But we also find a sizeable minority who clearly view ideological goals as being more important than the core principle of academic freedom”.

Sir John Hayes, who chairs the Common Sense Group of Conservative backbenchers, suggested the findings demonstrated why government proposals to safeguard freedom of speech on campuses needed to be toughened up further.

He said: “Self-censorship is a huge problem at universities. We need to strengthen the provisions in the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, including in terms of the penalties for universities not adhering to their legal duties, and to ensure that they have a duty not just to protect freedom of speech but to promote it.”

In the report, Prof Goodwin warns that, “worryingly, we ... find a sizeable minority of ‘activist academics’ who prioritise ideological goals over academic freedom.”

'Soft totalitarianism'

The survey found that 16 per cent of academics disagree that limits on freedom of speech undermine the core principles of which universities are founded - a group that Prof Goodwin said “represents a threat to academic freedom and reflects the ‘soft totalitarianism' that has been identified in other research.”

More than three in four (76 per cent) of academics disagreed with the suggestion that some people should be prevented from speaking to student audiences if their views were likely to cause offence.

Prof Goodwin described the finding as “positive” as it pointed to “widespread support for exposing students to a wide range of perspectives, opinions and beliefs.”

But one in 10 of those surveyed said that speakers who might offend students should be prevented from speaking on campus, while 14 per cent did not take a view either way.

Academics who “lean left are statistically more likely than their right-wing counterparts to want to prevent speakers who might offend students,” according to the report.

While 55 per cent of right-leaning academics strongly disagreed with the suggestion that some people should be prevented from speaking to student audiences if their views are likely to offend students, this fell to 32 per cent among left-wing academics.

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