Growing more and more intolerant over the free speech agenda

Today the Office for Students (OfS) has published the latest iteration of its Prevent monitoring accountability and data returns summary.

This exercise is ostensibly about assuring itself and stakeholders that it is exercising its oversight of providers’ efforts at implementing the Prevent counter-terrorism duty effectively.

It also – because it collects data on external speaker events and their regulation or refusal – accidentally also provides a source of evidence in wider debates about free speech on campus.

You might remember that we had some trouble at one stage in getting OfS to give us up to date numbers, with then Chair Michael Barber making promises that took a long time to keep.

Well new numbers are out today – and the framing in the OfS press release is interesting.

Almost 200 speakers rejected at English universities and colleges in 2020-21”…

…says the headline, pointing out that 94 were rejected in 2019-20, 141 were rejected in 2018-19, and just 53 events or speaker requests were rejected in 2017-18.

The comment from interim OfS CEO Susan Lapworth then does part one of what’s rapidly becoming a standard three step process – first OfS implies something, or says it raises a question, or would cause a concern or whatever:

…it is the case that the number and proportion of rejections sharply increased in 2020-21, with almost 200 speakers or events rejected. We would be concerned if those cases suggest that lawful views are being stifled.

…then OfS reminds readers of duties that, you know, may be being flouted:

Universities are required to take steps to secure freedom of speech within the law. This applies to their arrangements for external speakers and events on which we have reported today, but also to the exchange of ideas in lecture and seminar rooms, and across research communities. Topics which some may find offensive or controversial must be open to free debate in those contexts too.

…and then, as if by magic, two hours later a much less careful ministerial quote (this week from Andrea Jenkyns) takes the shuttlecock and slams it over the net:

While we know that the pandemic made it difficult for many organisations to arrange speaking events, this sharp rise in rejected speakers is very concerning. This is exactly why our new Freedom of Speech Bill will ensure universities not only protect free speech but promote it and ensure we are protecting the rights of students and academics across the country.”

And naturally, despite the report making clear that 99 per cent of events and speaker requests were approved in 2020-21 and stating that “universities and colleges remain places where debate and the sharing of ideas can thrive”, the Telegraph’s front page is as follows:

When you look at the actual figures you find 29 events rejected over health and safety, 157 over procedure (ie can I book a room tomorrow? No) and just 8 of the 193 for “other reasons”.

If, for example, the “procedure” categorisation or the “health and safety” reasons were cheeky ways around the law, then maybe OfS and Jenkyns would have a point. But how would they know?

Well I’ll tell you how. Because providers had 300 words to explain those cancellations, so OfS knows exactly what happened, even for those 8 “other matters”. Surely if it smelt a rat it could provide a proper analysis?

My hypothesis, for example, is that lots of student groups didn’t realise they’d need to get online events approved – and lots of events were cancelled or stopped at the last minute because restrictions were changing every 5 minutes.

Crucially, without that proper analysis I’m left thinking it looks like the regulator is under pressure to prove a problem that isn’t there, frames the numbers in such a way as to get away with saying it didn’t actually lie, and provide the opportunity to the minister to have a moan.

There are other aspects of interest to the data. It appears that in total, we only had one third of the events in 20/21 that we had in 18/19. Maybe that’s the pandemic, and maybe it’s universities and SUs spending much less time proactively inviting speakers in case they get upset about some aspect of the visit and claim they’ve been cancelled. Maybe there’s a chilling effect after all – just not the one ministers think there is.

If anything, the question should not be “why is there infinitesimally more orange?”. The question should be “why is there such a lot less blue?”. The reduction is all the more interesting because this year OfS made clear that reporting should cover online events as well as in-person events – which will have prompted some additional bureaucracy to kick in in universities and SUs over assessment of risk. Maybe, despite an online event reducing the opportunity costs, the additional bureaucracy required by OfS and its implementation of Prevent has had a chilling effect on speaker events that students and academics thought they could get approved at the drop of a hat?

In other words, maybe it’s the chilling effect of the government’s own insidious attempts to police speech on campus.

Either way, comparing 20/21 to the year before or event the year before that – with different reporting requirements and a pandemic in the way – and without showing us actual analysis of the cancellation reasons or distribution of the speaker numbers around provider types – provides the opposite of material robust enough for a press release from an actual regulator. What’s next – the Spiked Free Speech rankings being built into the TEF?

The report also looks at how universities and other higher education providers managed individual cases as part of their Prevent duty – providers were asked to identify any underpinning ideology for each case, and of the 47, 15 were identified as potential extreme right-wing radicalisation and 14 as potential Islamist radicalisation. Maybe that will turn up as a headline. Maybe not.

7 responses to “Growing more and more intolerant over the free speech agenda

  1. What’s next – the Spiked Free Speech rankings being built into the TEF?

    Don’t give them ideas, Jim!

  2. OfS’s data only covers 2/3rd of registered HE providers because (as they explain in footnote 4), Ofsted is responsible for oversight of Prevent in colleges and schools. To avoid overlap, OfS doesn’t collect data on events or cancellations from the 165 FE colleges who are registered HE providers.

  3. If OfS have collected all the reasons, surely that’s a good target for an FoI. I imagine they could release that without identifying institutions.

  4. “it looks like the regulator is under pressure to prove a problem that isn’t there, frames the numbers in such a way as to get away with saying it didn’t actually lie”… standard modus operandi for the last three years. Impossible to tell whether it’s under pressure from Government to do so, or just delights in its power. The latter is at least as likely as the former.

  5. Anyone bothered to think about the chilling effect of campus activists on invitations? I.e., we don’t know how many speakers are not invited to begin with, due to predictable hostility/additional and unjustifiable hoop jumps that will be imposed by SUs?

    1. I would hope so, given that seems like a pretty clear part of the impetus for these proposals – but it’s also not an excuse for them. Protest is protected – and if people don’t want to speak for fear of a protest happening then we must at least consider whether they really should be granted the exposure of our platforms (not to mention the tacit endorsement that comes with it, whether we want it to or not). And if a protest shows that the students who support an invitation are significantly outnumbered by those who oppose it, then that comes with a pretty clear mandate.

      I’d imagine the announcement of an on-campus speech by the reanimated corpse of Oswald Moseley would attract protests (over more than just his state of decomposition, that is). I’d hope those protests would convince the organisers to cancel such an arrangement, though I’d also hope the university in question would forsee such an outcome and not arrange such an event to begin with. That’s the sort of chilling effect we’re talking about, but I’m sure few people would argue that zombie-Moseley should be allowed to speak on campus.

      Framing this as argument about between unadulterated freedom of speech and censorship of any degree is a red herring. We all agree some speech should not be acceptable, even on political terms. This isn’t even over where the line is between acceptable and unacceptable political speech, which is already leagues of nuance ahead of the current zeitgeist; it’s about the even more nuanced question of where the line is for that speech being campus-appropriate. Unless we can make headway in that discussion, then policies like this put the cart before the horse – and until we stop bickering about this in broad culture-war terms, we won’t even have got so far as to open the stable door.

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