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

Susan Lapworth, interim chief executive of the OfS

New data published today by the Office for Students (OfS) finds that nearly 200 speakers or events were rejected by English universities and other higher education providers in 2020-21. The data is published alongside sector-wide information on the data universities and colleges return to the OfS as part of their compliance with the Prevent duty.  

The data shows that 19,407 events were held by universities and colleges with external speakers in 2020-21, with 193 speaker requests or events rejected. A further 632 events were approved subject to mitigations. In previous years:

  • 53 events or speaker requests were rejected in 2017-18 
  • 141 were rejected in 2018-19 
  • 94 were rejected in 2019-20. 

Commenting on the data, Susan Lapworth, interim chief executive at the OfS, said:  

“This data shows that more than 99 per cent of events and speaker requests were approved in 2020-21 and suggests that – in general – universities and colleges remain places where debate and the sharing of ideas can thrive. 

“However, 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. 

“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. 

The OfS will continue to regulate universities  to ensure they are meeting their obligations for freedom of speech. We are willing to intervene where we have concerns this may not be the case in this fundamentally important area.” 

The report also looks at how universities and other higher education providers managed individual cases as part of their Prevent duty. The report shows that 47 cases were subject to formal referral to external Prevent agencies. Universities and other higher education providers were asked to identify any underpinning ideology for each case. Of the 47, 15 were identified as potential extreme right-wing radicalisation and 14 as potential Islamist radicalisation.

The report and associated data is published at:

Sector Response

Minister for Skills, Further Education and Higher Education Andrea Jenkyns said:

“Universities and colleges must be places that champion debate and diversity of thought and this government has warned of the chilling effect of censorship on our campuses.

“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.”

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