More campus events and speakers barred by English universities

About 99 per cent of events and speakers were still approved last year, a similar proportion to previous years

June 4, 2024
Source: iStock/ kasto80

The number of events or speakers rejected by English higher education providers has more than trebled since the pandemic, figures show, though an overwhelming majority were still approved.

The data comes a year on from the appointment of the country’s first free speech director, and from controversial government legislation that requires universities and students’ unions to protect and promote free speech on campuses.

The statistics are collected and published by the Office for Students (OfS) as part of its monitoring of providers’ compliance with the government’s Prevent strategy, which aims to stop people becoming involved in terrorism or extremism.

The OfS figures show that about 39,475 events or speakers were held at English higher education institutions in 2022-23. Of these, 99 per cent were approved – a similar proportion to the two preceding years.

But 340 events or speakers were rejected, which was up from 260 in 2021-22 and the most since comparable records began in 2017-18. It was also three times more than the 95 that were rejected in 2019-20.

In addition, 1,285 events or speakers were approved but subject to some mitigations or conditions in 2022-23 – more than double the number that were restricted in previous years.

The OfS figures suggest that a wider range of providers are intervening on external speaker matters.

A total of 26 providers (8 per cent) rejected at least one event last year – which was more than double the number in 2020-21. And roughly a fifth of higher education institutions imposed a mitigation or condition on at least one event or speaker.

The OfS report says that providers’ processes are expected to consider the risk of radicalisation for students, staff and visitors while having particular regard to ensure freedom of speech as part of their decision-making processes.

Institutions are also expected to weigh up other issues relevant to hosting external speakers and events, such as health and safety and whether there is space to host an event.

One year ago, the OfS appointed University of Cambridge professor Arif Ahmed as its first director for freedom of speech and academic freedom, with responsibility for implementing the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill.

The Labour Party had repeatedly voted against the bill, so the controversial legislation could be under threat should it be elected to power in July.

The OfS figures also show that higher education providers escalated 210 cases in 2022-23 to the point at which a Prevent officer had to become involved.

This was up from 165 the year before and the most since 2018-19, when there were 365.

Of the cases last year, 19 per cent were related to Islamist radicalisation and 17 per cent to extreme-right wing radicalisation. Around 45 per cent were associated with a “mixed, unclear or unstable ideology”, and a further 17 per cent with another form.

A total of 91 providers (28 per cent) escalated at least one Prevent-related case last year, which was the highest level since the records began in 2017-18.

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Reader's comments (1)

"More events"--"similar proportions"???? Can anyone explain this to me? That point is...?