June 27, 2022 - 11:47am

A survey from the respected, Left-leaning Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) shows that British undergraduates have caught up with the craziness of their North American counterparts. If policymakers don’t act quickly, Britain is likely to become a substantially less free society.

The Hepi report finds that 61% of British students think that “when in doubt” their university “should ensure all students are protected from discrimination rather than allow unlimited free speech”. Just 17% back the free speech position. This 61-17 slant represents a big change from the already illiberal 37-27 margin recorded in 2016.

Among the other findings:

  • The proportion of students who think academics should be fired if they “teach material that heavily offends some students” is 36% (over double the 15% in 2016), with just 32% opposed
  • 39% believe student unions ‘should ban all speakers that cause offence to some students’ (more than double the 16% figure in 2016), with just 31% opposed
  • 76% think universities should “get rid of” memorials of potentially controversial figures
  • 77% think there should be “mandatory training for all university staff” on “understanding other cultures” (up from 55% in 2016)
  • 64% think universities should “consult special interest groups” such as religious or gender societies before holding campus events (up from 40% in 2016)
  • 86% support trigger warnings and 62% back safe spaces

This is nothing short of revolutionary, but it echoes findings from the United States which reveal a similar generational earthquake. Even when controlling for younger people’s Left-wing leanings, Gen-Z and younger Millennials are substantially more in favour of speech restrictions than older cohorts. That is, young Leftists are considerably more woke than older Leftists.

High culture’s dominant ideology is what I have termed cultural socialism or “social justice”. Resting on the “care/harm” and “fairness” moral foundations, it is defined by the desire to protect historically marginalised race, gender and sexuality groups from psychological harm, and to eliminate “systemic” power differentials between these identity groups. Its religious form is known as wokeness. For cultural socialists, social justice aims take precedence over cultural liberalism, which I define as freedom of expression, equal treatment of individuals under the law, scientific truth, merit and due process.

Universities are distinctive in bringing together two of the most culturally socialist groups in society, students and academics. Academics in Britain have a 5:1 Left to Right tilt, rising to 9:1 in the social sciences and humanities (SSH). Students lean Left by around 3:1, with a higher ratio in SSH subjects. The two come together in a campus environment where “social justice” concerns around equity, diversity and inclusion heavily dominate over classical liberal themes.

Will these young people grow out of their progressive illiberalism? It’s unlikely. Researchers used to find that younger and university-educated people were more tolerant of all kinds of speakers, from militarists and gays to communists and racists, compared to non-graduates and older people. This is no longer true.

Meanwhile, other researchers find that young graduates who once were more morally relativist than non-graduates are now more morally absolutist. One study compared Smith College students on a set of free speech questions in 2000 and 2016, and found a major shift toward the illiberal, culturally-socialist position. Generation, not age, explains the difference — which is why we should not expect today’s young people to grow out of their wokeness.


Eric Kaufmann is Professor of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London, and author of Whiteshift: Immigration, Populism and the Future of White Majorities. He is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange.

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