To ask the Secretary of State for Education, what discussions officials in his Department have had with representatives of Muslim student groups regarding freedom of speech on university campuses.
18 May 2021
The government is clear that the Prevent Duty should not be used to suppress free speech. It requires providers, when exercising their functions, to have due regard to the need to prevent people being drawn into terrorism. There is no prescription from the government, or the Office for Students (OfS), in regard to what action providers should take once they have had due regard. The legislation imposing the Prevent duty in relation to higher education specifically requires that providers must have particular regard to their duty to ensure freedom of speech and to the importance of academic freedom.
In the most recent published assessment by the OfS on implementation of the Prevent programme in the English higher education sector in 2019, they found no cause for concern that free speech was being undermined by Prevent in external speakers’ policies and their implementation. The assessment is available here: https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/prevent-review-meetings-programme-findings/.
The government also remains committed to an Independent Review of Prevent, which is why William Shawcross was appointed on 26 January 2021 as the new Independent Reviewer. The call for evidence for the Independent Review was reopened on the 24 March 2021 and will close on the 26 May 2021. The review will look at how effective the statutory Prevent duty is and will make recommendations for the future.
The department has carried out structured discussions at all stages of the policy development leading up to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, including student engagement through the National Union of Students and roundtables with students’ unions. The department welcomes further discussions and will continue to proactively engage stakeholders with a wide range of interests and backgrounds during and after passage of the Bill, including Muslim, East Asian and South East Asian students. The department plans to meet with Muslim organisations, as well as other stakeholders, in the next few weeks and looks forward to discussing the Bill measures in detail.