Question Time: Ben Stanford – Prevent on Campus: Stopping Extremism or Stifling Debate?

By Myriam Francois|November 9, 2015|Question Time|1 comments

Prevent on Campus: Stopping Extremism or Stifling Debate?

Ben Stanford, Legal Fellow, Rights Watch (UK)

At a recent event on the Prevent Strategy in universities, the former Business Secretary Vince Cable suggested that efforts to combat campus extremism may worsen the problem. Opposition to terrorism-related interventions in universities is not new: During the 2010-2015 Coalition Government, the then Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg personally vetoed the plan to block extremist speakers at universities. Nevertheless, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 was enacted on 12 February and Part 5 Chapter 1 concerned ‘Preventing People Being Drawn Into Terrorism’. The Act gave the Prevent Strategy a statutory footing and placed a duty on public authorities, including universities, to include prevention of terrorism in their functions. This led to many concerns, not least that freedom of expression in universities was under threat.

The Prevent Strategy, first introduced in 2006, has been subject to fierce criticism from a wide range of stakeholders for its chilling effect in universities, impacting students, academics and administrators. An academic event on Islamophobia had to be relocated after the host institution withdrew its support amidst concerns that a far right organisation was proposing a counter-demonstration. This followed a meeting between the organisers and university staff in which the local council’s Prevent Officer was also in attendance. Furthermore, an independent think tank has reported that between January 2011 and July 2013, at least seven universities had cancelled 13 Islamic society events which involved visiting speakers. According to the universities, this was due to pressure placed upon them from external groups and the incompatibility of the speakers’ views with its own.

Since the Prevent Strategy was placed on a statutory footing however, the ineptness of the Strategy has been demonstrated with one recent high profile example in particular. In September, a Muslim student at Staffordshire University who was reading a book on Terrorism Studies was questioned by a university official who then reported the incident to security guards. The student, Mohammed Umar Farooq, was enrolled on a masters course in terrorism, crime and global security, but withdrew from his course after the ordeal to challenge the university’s actions. Teaching staff have voiced grave concerns at their ability to create open, safe and challenging learning environments for their students while the university is burdened with a statutory duty to ‘prevent people being drawn into terrorism’. This is particularly evident regarding sensitive courses where students are required to study materials which may put them in danger of anti-terrorism interventions.

Despite the disruption and anxiety that the Prevent Strategy is causing in universities (and indeed more widely), and a number of clearly disproportionate and inappropriate actions taken against students, the Strategy continues to create more problems than it solves. In addition to claims that the Prevent Strategy is indeed ineffective, the Strategy has met with widespread criticism as being counter-productive in its application. A lecturer and author on British Islamic identity, Aminul Hoque, has criticised the government policy in this regard, arguing that:

‘If the idea was to understand the roots of extremism, the roots of radicalisation, by putting a magnifying glass across the Muslim communities of Great Britain, what has happened is that has widened the schism between the ‘Muslim’ us and the British ‘other’.’

Controversially, the new statutory duty placed upon universities and the increasing overlap between counter-terrorism and counter-extremism policies has been accompanied in recent months by several examples of speakers being banned or pressured to withdraw from presenting on university campuses by student bodies. These include Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel, Maryam Namazie and Tommy Robinson. Despite the stance taken by the National Union of Students to oppose the Prevent Strategy, the NUS’s own “No Platform” Policy has also faced criticism for stifling debate on campus. Arguments against the policy are similar to those levelled against the Government’s counter-terrorism policy.

On 13 October 2015, the Government published its new Counter-Extremism Strategy which marks a concerning continuation and significant expansion of the Prevent Strategy. The new Counter-Extremism Strategy raises many troubling issues, not least of all its impact on civil and political rights, rule of law principles, and the freedom of expression in universities. Overall, the Strategy appears to continue the trend of crafting a particular narrative which narrows the scope of acceptable behaviour which inevitably has severe implications for the everyday lives of many people in society, but most of all for British and non-British Muslims. Earlier in the year, the proposals for a new Counter-Extremism Bill were outlined which would include a number of new powers, some of which will have an impact at universities. These include Banning Orders, Extremism Disruption Orders, Closure Orders, and further powers concerning broadcasting and employment checks. In this regard, perhaps the most chilling remarks indicating the shift in policy came from the Prime Minister when he said:

‘For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone. It’s often meant we have stood neutral between different values. And that’s helped foster a narrative of extremism and grievance.’

Unsurprisingly, the proposals have been met with much criticism from all quarters. For example, in October 2014 the Conservative backbench MP Dominic Raab, now a Justice Minister, published an article criticising some of the proposals, and in particular Extremism Disruption Orders. It is a matter of concern that the Government is not learning everything it can from the negative effects of its counter-terrorism strategies in Northern Ireland. Measures that might be interpreted as targeting specific communities can marginalise law-abiding citizens, erode trust in government and policing, and ultimately fuel resentment amongst certain groups.

The recent developments affecting universities are obviously disturbing for students, academics and members of the general public who are committed to free speech, academic debate and mutual respect on campus. The Prevent Strategy has already shown itself to have the potential to be applied in an arbitrary and discriminatory fashion whilst the new Counter-Extremism Strategy and any resulting Act will almost certainly add further challenges.

Rights Watch (UK) researches, litigates and advocates on the compatibility of counter-terrorism activities with human rights and the rule of law.



Twitter: rightswatchuk

For details of government policy see:

The Prevent Strategy (June 2011) at

Prevent Duty Guidance: for higher education institutions in England and Wales at

The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 at

The Counter-Extremism Strategy (October 2015) at

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About Myriam Francois

This is the official blog for the SOAS-CIS. It aims to encourage scholars to debate and engage with the wider public on the basis of their research and will foster discussions about mainly UK and also European Integration discourse as relates to Islam and British Muslims. We tweet @SoasCis

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