Students’ essays have been investigated by police due to government counter-terrorism measures. These measures have been criticised as ‘overzealous’ and campaigners have expressed concerns that such actions stifle free speech on campus. They argue that the ‘Prevent’ programme has treated students and lecturers as ‘suspects and informants’.
Freedom of Information requests have revealed that a number of essays have been flagged as a result of the government’s anti-radicalisation procedures. However, no action has been taken towards students thus far.
Universities affected include University of Wolverhampton, where a student was questioned by their lecturer in response to a piece of work they had submitted, and De Montfort University in Leicester, where three students’ essays were reported to University security before being investigated by police.
This is not the first time the Prevent policy has led to the flagging of academic material. Experts say that universities reporting students for their essays is a new development. The University of Reading has been criticised for flagging an essay written by a left-wing academic as ‘sensitive’ under the Prevent policy.
It has also come to light that some universities also require students and academics to complete forms prior to accessing certain material for their studies.
Dr Tufail, who has researched Prevent, responded to recent developments:
It is just perhaps more evidence that Prevent is not working. And despite what the government has said for a long time, it does discernible harm. It really hits home when you think about the impact on academic freedom and general freedom of speech. There hasn’t been quick enough action from the government. I think the government has a lot to answer for. But we shouldn’t let individual universities off the hook.
The government launched a review of the Prevent programme scheme last January in response to long-standing allegations that it was discriminatory against Muslims and impeded freedom of speech and religion.
A government spokesperson commented:
Prevent is a safeguarding duty and seeks to stop people from being drawn into terrorism. It does not restrict academic freedom nor recommend that students’ work undergoes security checks. In its most recent report, the universities regulator found no cause for concern on how institutions balance their free speech responsibilities and the Prevent duty.