As the father of four children who will be entering higher education in the next few years, I’m worried that my home will shortly start to resemble a university campus. In other words, I’ll be forced to declare my preferred gender pronouns, the kitchen will be designated a ‘safe space’ and the collected works of J.K. Rowling will be burnt on the garden lawn. You may think I’m joking, but a new poll from the Higher Education Policy Institute lays bare just how thin-skinned today’s students are.
For instance, 61 per cent of undergraduates say that ‘when in doubt’ their university ‘should ensure all students are protected from discrimination rather than allow unlimited free speech’ and 79 per cent believe ‘students that feel threatened should always have their demands for safety respected’. You may think it was ever thus – haven’t the long-haired opium-eaters always been zealous enforcers of progressive orthodoxy? But the same questions were asked of students six years ago and they’ve become even less tolerant since then.
In 2016, an alarming 16 per cent of respondents thought ‘students’ unions should ban all speakers that cause offence to some students’, but that figure has now climbed to a whopping 39 per cent. Today, 76 per cent of students think universities should ‘get rid of’ controversial statues and memorials, up from 51 per cent in 2016. Six years ago, 48 per cent of undergrads supported safe-space policies; that number is now 62 per cent. I’m tempted to brand these militant crybabies ‘Generation Snowflake’, but they’re so hypersensitive that might lead to mental health services on campus being overwhelmed.
Nick Hillman, the director of HEPI, charitably attributes this decline in support for free speech to the tough time students have had in the past six years, leading to a preoccupation with ‘safety’. ‘Back then undergraduates had been born in the previous century, whereas today’s young undergraduates were born after the turn of the millennium – and they have had to contend with Covid, industrial action and a cost-of-living crisis,’ he says.
There may be something in that, but surely the main cause is that organisations such as Stonewall and Advance HE have successfully infected British universities with hard-left identitarian ideology under the guise of promoting ‘diversity and inclusion’. Last week, 25 Conservative MPs and peers signed a letter to the Education Secretary alerting him to the Racial Equality Charter, Advance HE’s latest attempt to tackle ‘institutional and cultural’ discrimination in a sector which must rank as the least racist in the UK. In their desperation to secure a bronze or silver Race Equality Charter award, 20 universities have said they are ‘decolonising’ their courses. The irony is that nearly all these ‘anti-racism’ initiatives have been imported from America – ‘colonisation’ might be a more accurate description of the process Advance HE is overseeing on British campuses.
Hillman implies that HEPI’s poll points to the need for universities to get their own houses in order rather than more ‘top-down regulation’, a reference to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill which will impose greater obligations on English universities to protect and promote free speech. But haven’t they squandered that chance? Margaret Thatcher’s government introduced some light-touch legislation designed to defend academic freedom in 1986 and in the intervening decades things have got much worse. The Higher Education Bill is a much needed corrective.
An additional reason that parents of teenage children should be worried about the ideological monoculture at British universities is that the Law Commission of England and Wales has recommended the scrapping of the ‘dwelling exception’, whereby you cannot be prosecuted for stirring up hatred against various protected groups in the privacy of your own home. It has already been done away with in Scotland and there are moves afoot to get rid of it in Northern Ireland. Once that’s gone, university students will be able to inform on their parents to the authorities and then be summoned to appear as witnesses for the prosecution. In Northern Ireland, one proposal being considered is to make ‘transmisogyny’ a hate crime, meaning you could be prosecuted for telling your pink-haired teenage daughter that you don’t think trans women are women.
In the name of keeping vulnerable groups ‘safe’, Britain is rapidly becoming a totalitarian society and, as this new poll makes clear, universities are doing their best to help this along.