Why the UCU can’t oppose Prevent

The University College Union (UCU), the UK’s further- and higher-education lecturers’ union, passed a motion last week opposing the UK government’s Prevent strategy, which restricts who can speak on campus and demands lecturers monitor their students for signs of ‘radicalisation’.

There is no doubt that Prevent is an insidious incursion into the intellectual life of a university, and an attack on freedom of speech. It draws a direct line between word and deed – if you hear, read or say something deemed dangerously radical you are deemed prone to act on those views. Therefore, under the censorious logic of Prevent, the offending words should not be said or heard.

However, the UCU and its ally against Prevent, the National Union of Students (NUS), oppose Prevent while working to undermine civil liberties by other means. Indeed, the UCU motion actually pledges support for groups that have been calling for censorship on campus and encouraging a ‘you can’t say that’ culture. The statement includes a strong statement of support for ‘decolonise education’ activists, who have campaigned against the Rhodes statue at Oxford and are calling for a less ‘white’ curriculum. Decolonisation activists also support Safe Spaces and the No Platforming of speakers deemed to be offensive or dangerous. Far from resisting the state, decolonisation activists resist debate.

What the UCU, the NUS and the government share is a belief that academic and political debate needs to be tightly controlled. In the end, Prevent complements Safe Spaces and No Platforming. The UCU’s opposition to Prevent is not really borne of a principled defence of civil liberties. Prevent would be better opposed by a consistent defence of liberty and, in particular, a defence of freedom of speech on campus.

The UCU motion even calls for a ‘campaign against Islamophobia, with a particular focus on education, and Islamophobia-awareness training for all staff’. So here a motion ostensibly defending free speech simultaneously undermines free thought. Racism is reprehensible, and lecturers should confront it if they see it. But treating staff as unwitting Islamophobes is not only patronising in the extreme, it is also likely to close down, rather than open up, debate.

That’s not all. The motion also calls for UCU branches to ‘request that each senior management team in post-16 educational institutions commit to the protection of education as a non-discriminatory space’. This amounts to a call for Safe Spaces – and this is bad news for free speech on campus. What might constitute discriminatory speech for one person could be fair comment for another. In recent years, we have seen numerous speakers, from pro-lifers to pro-Palestinian activists, accused of discrimination, with subsequent (often successful) attempts to No Platform them. The UCU’s demand for a ‘non-discriminatory’ space will exacerbate this culture of offence-taking, restrict free speech and deepen students’ feelings of vulnerability.

If campaigners accept the idea that young people are vulnerable to ideas they find offensive and are in need of Safe Spaces, they are half way to accepting Prevent.

Jim Butcher is a UCU branch committee member and former chair. He is writing in a personal capacity.

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