Prevent is no threat to free speech on campus

Prevent monitoring and defeat of legal challenge shows that anti-extremism policy is not limiting academic freedom, says Hifsa Harron-Iqbal

August 6, 2017

As a Prevent coordinator who has worked with higher education organisations for nearly five years, I have seen at first hand the vital work undertaken by institutions to ensure that the policy safeguards students from the very real threat of radicalisation.

Two years on from the introduction of the duty in 2015, a report published this week by the Higher Education Funding Council for England has found that higher education institutions are doing a good job in safeguarding their students from radicalisation.

It shows that none of the 313 providers assessed is failing to demonstrate due regard in its duty to safeguard students. In other words, Prevent is being applied appropriately and proportionately.

This news comes less than a week after claims brought against the Prevent duty and the Home Office were all dismissed by a High Court judgment that recognised the importance of Prevent in safeguarding vulnerable people from the threat of extremist influences.

The judgment further highlighted that “the Prevent duty does not require freedom of speech to be interfered with”.

Significantly, the ruling also recognised that the guidance does not dictate what actions higher education institutions should take. It is for institutions to decide locally what action is best for them, it said.

This is important because there is no one-size-fits-all approach. The case studies in Hefce’s report point to the fact that Prevent is implemented by universities and colleges in a manner befitting their own structures and procedures.

The judgment that Prevent is not incompatible with freedom of speech or human rights laws strongly counters the argument pushed by some detractors.

Prevent explicitly encourages debate in education – whether in schools, colleges or universities – by creating safe spaces. This reduces the influence of hate preachers and those who seek to exploit vulnerable people for violent and radical causes.

One of the most contentious issues in this area has centred on whether the duty has resulted in campus events on controversial topics being cancelled, especially around activism and support for Palestine.

This is at odds with reality and feels like an attempt to exploit what is an issue of political and emotional significance to many people. Events relating to Palestine have taken place across many campuses without hindrance, with organisations such as One Solution, a joint Israeli and Palestinian initiative, holding debates on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

In my role as a coordinator, I have always encouraged institutions to provide a safe space where open and honest dialogue can be promoted, not stifled.

This approach applies to all sectors in the field of education, not just universities. A recent independent report led by Coventry University found “clear examples of schools, colleges and individual staff responding to the duty through initiating or reinvigorating a range of curriculum activities”. 

I have seen at first hand the commitment that universities have to their students’ safety. One provider I have worked with closely is the University of Wolverhampton, which was recognised as particularly strong in its approach to Prevent. It has a dedicated Prevent working group of staff and students who meet regularly and report any findings to the university’s safeguarding committee.

“There has never been a more important time for us to come together to tackle the dangers of radicalisation and ensure that extremist ideologies are robustly challenged,” Jo Johnson, the universities minister, said this week.

We need Prevent more than ever. Those who brought the legal challenge against Prevent lost on all aspects of their claim, and this week it was revealed that no higher education institution is failing to deliver Prevent.

That does not mean that the job is done, of course, but it is encouraging progress.

Hifsa Haroon-Iqbal is the regional Prevent lead for higher and further education in the West Midlands.

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Reader's comments (1)

A more concrete and less biased account of the case referred to above is given here: https://www.bindmans.com/news/r-on-the-application-of-dr-salman-butt-v-secretary-of-state-for-the-ho1. Note that it will be appealed, so the above statements should not be regarded as definitive. The fact that "events relating to Palestine have taken place across many campuses without hindrance" hardly constitutes 'proof' that academic freedom is not being violated. For another perspective, see: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/feb/27/university-wrong-to-ban-israeli-apartheid-week-event. Jo Johnson's record on academic freedom overall is appalling, and this article treats the government's agenda in a remarkably subservient fashion, without grappling with the real issues.

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