The number of events rejected by England’s universities reached a record high last year, amid the concern that free speech was stifled on campuses.
According to the Office for Students, 193 events were disallowed 2020-21 which was more than double the previous year’s 94. The number was the highest since 2017 when the collection of such data began.
The universities watchdog which advocates unhindered debates on campuses found the trend “deeply worrying” and warned that education providers could face regulatory intervention if they failed to meet their obligations to allow freedom of speech.
Its interim chief executive Susan Lapworth told The Telegraph that she was concerned about the possibility that “lawful views are being stifled”.
She said there should be free debates on campuses even on topics which some people could find “offensive or controversial”.
Higher education minister Andrea Jenkyns also echoed a similar view on the watchdog’s “very concerning” findings.
“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,” Jenkyns told the newspaper.
The findings come as the memories of the controversial cancellation of an on-campus event is still fresh.
The University of Essex called off a seminar on trans rights and the criminal justice system last year fearing the “transphobe” speaker could engage in “hate speech”.
Concerns were also raised as the university did not invite international human rights law expert Rosa Freedman to an event on anti-Semitism over the apprehension about her gender-critical views.
However, Universities UK, an advocacy organisation for universities in Britain, said institutions promoted a conducive atmosphere for debates and discussions.
“Institutions do all they can to ensure a culture which encourages free speech and academic freedom so diverse groups and individuals can participate in debate and discussion, with mutual dignity and respect,” its spokesperson told The Telegraph.
“Vice-chancellors support universities playing a more active and visible role in promoting free speech and encouraging debate, and these latest figures show that universities and student unions continue to host tens of thousands of events each year, with less than one per cent not going ahead, often for logistical reasons such as late booking requests.”
The Office for Students, a non-departmental public body of the Department for Education states that advancing ideas and learning through debate is “critical” to universities and colleges.
Freedom of speech is essential to the interests of students, it maintains.