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Fewer than 1% of English university speakers ‘cancelled’

Data from OfS Prevent monitoring suggest tiny proportion of events do not go ahead

The “overwhelming majority” of university events featuring external speakers go ahead as planned in England, data from the Office for Students has shown.

The government recently passed the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act amid concerns among some politicians that suppression of freedom of speech is widespread on campuses. But the data show just 0.8 per cent of 32,290 invited speakers or events were ultimately rejected.

In total, just 260 planned events did not go ahead, while a further 485 were able to proceed with some form of mitigation. A total of 31,545 speakers or events were approved without issue, according to the report, which provides a summary of the OfS’s monitoring of the Prevent counter-terrorism strategy.

The latest figures, which cover 2021-22, show a year-on-year increase in the number of approved events. In 2020-21, 193 events were cancelled out of a total of 20,237—or around 1 per cent.

David Smy, director of monitoring and intervention at the OfS, said the data “suggests that the overwhelming majority of events with external speakers went ahead as planned”, but warned it might not show “the full picture”.

“The data does not capture decisions not to invite speakers in the first place or voluntary withdrawal of requests for approval,” he said. “We recognise that this could be masking cases where event organisers or speakers feel unable to proceed with the event they had planned.”

Invitations never made

The free speech act facilitates the appointment of a free speech director at the OfS, to monitor university performance. But there are concerns that the legislation will make it less likely that universities and students unions will invite controversial speakers in the first place, since they are now liable to be sued should an individual feel they have been ‘cancelled’.

Speaking in December, former universities and science minister David Willetts said there was already a “very worrying trend of a decline in the number of external speakers going to universities because people think it is just more trouble, too risky and too dangerous”.

“The risk with these provisions [in the free speech bill] is that they make that trend worse,” he said.

Smy said the OfS now had “a range of powers to intervene” if there were concerns that universities and colleges were rejecting invited speakers who wish to express lawful views.

Elsewhere, today’s report provides data on the management of individual radicalisation cases by universities and colleges as part of their duty under Prevent. It shows 55 cases of people being referred to external Prevent agencies.

Universities and colleges were asked to identify any underpinning ideology for each case. Of the 55 referrals, 15 were identified as potential Islamist radicalisation and 10 as potential extreme right-wing radicalisation.