The 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.
But it also accidentally provides a source of evidence in wider debates about free speech on campus – because part of the exercise involves the collection of data on external speaker events, and both their regulation or refusal.
Headlines first. In the period, 31,545 speakers or events were approved to be held in England’s registered universities and colleges. 260 planned events did not go ahead, and a further 475 went ahead with some form of mitigation.
That’s a rejections increase. 200 speakers were rejected the year before, 94 were rejected in 2019-20, and just 53 events or speaker requests were rejected in 2017-18. Thank god new legislation is coming to save us from the tyranny of the woke warriors cancelling events willy nilly and so on.
Of course in percentage terms, it’s a 0.8 per cent rejection rate – lower than last year’s 1 per cent. Don’t expect that to be highlighted in the press.
Why were they rejected? Well, OfS asks providers for the data – and here we learn that health and safety saw off 25 requests, the risk of radicalisation was responsible for precisely 0 cancellations, 15 were cancelled for miscellaneous reasons and 220 were procedural – for example, “where the timescales for submission of a request as specified in a policy were not met so there was insufficient time to make a decision about a case and it was therefore not approved on that basis.”
Billy from Deb Soc put the form in for next week’s event on Friday afternoon and ran straight to the Free Speech Union when someone in the SU said it was too late, in other words.
We should also note that where a provider categorised the reason for rejecting an external speaker or event for non-Prevent related reasons, OfS has not (to date) asked the provider for further information to understand if the external speaker or event then took place at a later date.
So that all suggests that at absolute most, we’re looking at 15 incidents of speaker cancellation that would fit the press tropes of “no platforming” out of over 30,000 events. Although come to think of it, the same small handful of anecdotes are indeed trotted out time and again in the debate over this agenda.
Amazingly, OfS marks the occasion for the second year in a row by insinuating that despite the fact that the evidence is there isn’t a problem, there may well be one anyway:
…the data may not provide the full picture. The data does not capture decisions not to invite speakers in the first place or voluntary withdrawal of requests for approval. We recognise that this could be masking cases where event organisers or speakers feel unable to proceed with the event they had planned.
Even if OfS had data on that, it’s not clear that the legislation it then refers to would be able to tackle it:
As a result of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023 the OfS will be taking on new powers, and the universities and colleges we regulate will have additional responsibilities to take steps to protect and promote freedom of speech within the law. We have a range of powers to intervene if we identify concerns that universities and colleges are rejecting invited speakers who wish to express lawful views, even if those views are challenging or seen as offensive by some.”
Helpfully given the likes of Spiked! and the FSU issue a press release every time they’re asked to fill a form in, OfS does remind us that paperwork matters:
A provider subject to the duty is required to have systems in place to approve external speakers and events. Given the diversity of the higher education sector, there are different systems in place depending on each provider’s operating context. These systems are expected to ensure that the provider considers the risk of radicalisation for students, staff and visitors while having particular regard to ensure freedom of speech as part of its decision-making processes. These systems are also expected to ensure the provider considers other issues relevant to hosting external speakers and events, such as health and safety and whether there is space to host an event.
What would be really interesting would be to see the distribution of speaker events around the sector – our own research a few years back suggested that students were enjoying the fruits and benefits of debate in a small concentration of elite providers, with everyone else barely getting a whiff of a visit.
But as the data was never designed to tell us about who’s actually experiencing free speech, OfS declines to tell us about the distribution of debate – preferring instead to nudge and wink to the media the idea that it’s being shut down quietly.
It’s on days like this that its pretence of not being unduly influenced by ministers really do stretch beyond all meaningful credibility.