Heriot-Watt blog highlights student misperceptions

In July, Student Rights’ new report ‘Preventing Prevent? Challenges to Counter-Radicalisation Policy on Campus’ highlighted how misunderstandings were driving student opposition to the Prevent strategy.

A blog posted over the weekend by Heriot-Watt University Student Union (HWUSU) demonstrates many of these fallacies, and shows the extent to which students have failed to understand the policy they are opposing.

Chief amongst these is the argument that Prevent is a racist policy, with the claim it is “heavily based” in discrimination or racial profiling used on four separate occasions by HWUSU.

However, no evidence is provided for the sweeping claims made on this issue – nor is any provided for the repeated suggestion that Prevent incites or perpetuates Islamophobia.

In one case, the blog argues “PREVENT…includes criteria for prejudice based on a student’s…ethnic background” – something which simply does not appear in the strategy or its associated guidance.

That such serious claims are used as the centrepiece of opposition to Prevent, but are not supported by any evidence, should raise questions about the accuracy of these claims.

Similar accusations have also been regularly used by extremists to silence criticism, in some cases using students to spread this message, and as our report demonstrates, this narrative has influenced on-campus criticism.

HWUSU’s blog also claims Prevent uses “relevant mental health issues” as one of the “potential indicators of “radicalism” or “extremism”” – and suggests this stigmatises those with mental health issues as a result.

In fact, the only references to mental health in the Prevent strategy highlight that “people with mental health issues or learning disabilities…may be more easily drawn into terrorism” (such as Nicky Reilly) and that healthcare practitioners may see such individuals during their work.

The phrase supposedly taken from Prevent by the HWUSU blog in fact appears in guidance as one of thirteen reasons why an individual may be susceptible to “engagement with a group, cause or ideology”.

This guidance also specifically states that it: “should not be assumed that the characteristics set out below necessarily indicate that a person…may become a terrorist”.

Whether the misleading use of this guidance stems from a misunderstanding or a more malicious attempt to outrage students is unclear, but is does highlight how poorly-informed entire lines of attack against Prevent are.

Finally, the blog post also argues Prevent: “is damaging the ability of students and lecturers to carry out research freely” and that“it goes against the right to freedom of speech”.

As a result, HWUSU suggest that: “with PREVENT the University would be monitoring and clamping down on certain student led activities – thus censoring us and our right to freedom of expression”.

While no examples are given of Prevent hindering academic research, the claim the strategy asks universities to manage student activities is true, with recent guidance suggesting institutions “have policies and procedures in place for the management of events on campus”.

However, the outrage expressed over this by HWUSU is undermined by the fact the speaker policy it suggests appears far more restrictive than any suggested by the Home Office, Universities UK, or the Charity Commission.

In this case, it appears that as long as the process is “democratic and student led”, HWUSU has no problem with restricting freedom of expression to protect vulnerable students – making its criticism of Prevent on these grounds less credible.

While students do not have to like Prevent, or agree with its aim to protect those vulnerable to radicalisation, it is important criticism does not spread misinformation or parrot extremist narratives.

Universities should be the best place to challenge extremist ideas, yet at present this is simply not happening, and fear-mongering about attempts to do so are not helping.

This is something that must change if we are to successfully oppose on-campus radicalisation.

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