New rules to combat extremism in UK universities are inhibiting students from talking freely in seminars, a conference has been told.
Adrian Lee, an academic quality officer at the University of York, said that his institution was “already having reports of students…feeling apprehensive about what they can and cannot say” in class since new Prevent duties took effect in September.
Speaking in a debate over the impact on campus of new counter-terrorism measures at the Association of University Administrators’ annual conference in Leeds on 22 March, Dr Lee said that universities should do more to clarify guidelines about when students would be reported to authorities over their views.
“Universities need to think about complying with regulations, but also how students understand them,” he said.
Gavin Barber, head of student central at Oxford Brookes University, told the debate how some staff were now apprehensive about approving the potentially controversial titles of master's dissertations.
Many administrators did not feel sufficiently equipped to undertake the specialist task of identifying potential extremists, something normally undertaken by the security services, Mr Barber added.
“I feel no more comfortable asking [staff] to carry out this policy than I would asking them to pilot a helicopter or undertake brain surgery,” he said.
Its implementation relied on having a “proscribed list of speakers that no one is willing to admit exists”, said Professor McQuillan.
However, Dusty Amroliwala, deputy vice-chancellor at the University of East London, said that the Prevent duties were reasonable and universities should be willing to take a position on speakers with bigoted or extreme views seeking to talk on campus.
He also raised the case of an UEL academic who reported their concerns regarding a student who had changed the way they dressed and started talking about travelling to Syria.
“That academic was really concerned about that student not only because of Prevent, but because they wanted something to be done,” said Mr Amroliwala.
Delegates at the AUA conference voted by roughly two to one in support of the debate's motion that Prevent duties "endanger freedom of expression and contribute to a long-term decline in academic liberty".