Prevent counter-terror scheme has 'chilling effect' on university life, report

14 July 2020, 06:20

The research said the Prevent scheme is 'stifling free speech in universities'
The research said the Prevent scheme is 'stifling free speech in universities'. Picture: PA
EJ Ward

By EJ Ward

Freedom of speech in universities is being curbed by the Government's Prevent counter-terrorism scheme, according to a report.

Just a quarter of students feel able to express their views on Islam, with the controversial scheme said to cause "anxiety" among students.

The anti-extremism program is said by the report to have a"chilling effect" on life on campus.

The study found just a quarter of the 2,022 surveyed across UK universities said they felt "entirely free" to express their views on Islam compared with 51 per cent when asked about the UK Government.

"Anxieties about the Prevent strategy have had a chilling effect on campus life, especially among Muslim students, some of whom have consciously modified their engagement with higher education in order to avoid being labelled an extremist and subjected to unfair discrimination," the report said.

Dr Shuruq Naguib, one of the authors of the "Islam and Muslims on UK University Campuses" paper, said there are "very serious concerns" about the impact on academic life.

A Muslim student asked a white colleague to borrow books about Islam on her behalf, while two Muslim researchers had to delay their work to negotiate issues requiring them to report extremist ideas among participants, she said.

"This is definitely a chilling effect and is potentially dangerous to academic freedom," she added.

"In a way it undermines the values of modern higher education and certainly British higher education."

Prevent relies on tip-offs from members of the public, schools, universities and other organisations to identify people who might be at risk of becoming radicalised to commit acts of terrorism.

In the vast majority of cases, the person identified will either leave the process requiring no further action, or will be signposted to other services.

When authorities conclude there is a risk that the person could be drawn into terrorism, they can be supported through another scheme known as Channel.

The research, led by SOAS University of London with Lancaster, Durham and Coventry universities, also found Prevent, launched in 2003, reinforces stereotypes about Muslims.

Although 59 per cent of students surveyed had not heard of the scheme, the report said those who agreed with the Government's strategy are more likely to express negative views about Islam.

Around a fifth of students agreed that the religion is "incompatible with British values", and 35 per cent agreed that Prevent is "essential to protecting the security of our universities and combating terrorism".

The report concludes: "We believe there is a strong argument for Prevent to be discontinued in its current form.

"The evident damage this programme has done to university life clearly calls for a rethink at the policy level.

"Prevent has caused significant harm by reinforcing common stereotypes of Islam and Muslims and by curbing freedoms of speech and expression on campus."

A Government spokeswoman said: "The Government is committed to strengthening academic freedom and free speech in universities, so that they are places where debate thrives.

"Universities are required by law to uphold freedom of speech, allowing academics, students and visiting speakers to challenge ideas and discuss controversial subjects. The Prevent Duty explicitly requires this."

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