How to Prevent academic freedom

Asking university staff to report on students who are ‘vulnerable’ to extremist ideas will only deter debate.

Depressed at university? Feeling a bit lonely or isolated? Having a row with family members, perhaps? Or do you have some ‘political grievances’? Then you might be vulnerable to extremists on campus and you might need to be monitored by state officials - especially if you’re a Muslim.

Government officials are providing such tell-tale symptoms of vulnerability as guidelines to university staff, who are now being asked to look out for students who might become prey for right-wing or Islamic extremist groups.

From now on, any students hoping to go to their tutor, an administrator or a university lecturer for a friendly chat will have to be aware that these advisers are being encouraged by the state to look for signs of political ‘vulnerability’ - and to report such ‘vulnerability’ to the police. What’s more, students deemed to be ‘at risk’ won’t even know that they are effectively being spied on.

As part of the Lib-Con government’s new Prevent strategy, which has been implemented across England over the past month, government officials are meeting with key officials at universities, encouraging them to shop students who might potentially become victims of political troublemakers. As reported in the Guardian, universities in London and Lancaster have already been targeted, with student union officials being grilled about ‘Muslim students and whether the college had problems with its Islamic Society’.

This state intrusion could seriously undermine the ability of university staff to offer pastoral care. And there are also implications for academic freedom, despite reassurances from the Prevent team that the ‘free flow of ideas’ at university will not be affected. ‘We are completely committed to protecting freedom of speech in this country’, says the Prevent strategic report published earlier this year. The report then qualified this ‘complete commitment’ with a big ‘but’: ‘universities and colleges also have a legal and moral obligation to staff and students to ensure that the place of work and study is a tolerant, welcoming and safe environment.’

According to Prevent, universities and colleges have ‘a duty of care’ to their students. They also have ‘a clear and unambiguous role to play in helping to safeguard vulnerable young people from radicalisation and recruitment by terrorist organisations’. This includes having protocols in place to manage ‘potentially controversial speakers’ and to ensure that public platforms are not given to extremist groups.

So, basically, academic freedom goes out the window in the name of protecting ‘vulnerable’ students. If students and academic staff aren’t completely free to express their views, then academic freedom does not exist. If students believe that by bringing up the motivations of the British National Party or Islamic terrorists they may become recommended for surveillance, surely they will think twice about raising the subject in class. An obvious side effect of the Prevent strategy, intentional or not, will be to generate a culture of distrust between university staff and students, who will no longer feel they can freely explore ideas - or express feelings - in confidence.

The casting of students as ‘vulnerable’ to warped ideologies is a far cry from the traditional conception of a liberal education. In his seminal work The Idea of a University, the nineteenth-century theologist John Henry Newman described a good university education as one which opens the mind: ‘to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties…’

How can the mind be opened fully if it is being sheltered from particular perspectives and viewpoints? How can accurate knowledge be obtained by students when they are prevented from hearing the full array of ideas on a particular subject? How can ideas be refined and corrected if there are ‘no go’ areas set by the authorities? In seeing students first and foremost as ‘vulnerable’, rather than as robust and able to digest and deal with all sorts of ideas, the government’s Prevent strategy will actually prevent students from getting all the benefits of a good liberal education.

While lecturers, students and their unions have reportedly ‘expressed disquiet’ about the Prevent strategy, they also share responsibility for the way in which students have come to be cast as fragile children, rather than robust adults. The National Union of Students (NUS) has long supported ‘no platform’ policies that are meant to shield students from the ideas of groups cast by the NUS as distasteful or dangerous. And university administrations have, in myriad ways, categorised their students as vulnerable– to financial pressures, to alcohol and drugs, to thought manipulation.

Ironically, in obsessing about safeguarding ‘vulnerable’ students, government and university bodies alike are actually doing their utmost to ensure students aren’t as knowledgeable and insightful as they might otherwise be. Those who want to prevent this from happening, those who value the bond of trust between lecturers and students and who think that bright young things that go to university are robust enough to deal with whatever is thrown at them, should refuse to cooperate with Prevent on campus.

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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