Universities have always had a unique duty among public institutions to safeguard freedom of speech with open debate in order to help university communities flourish and evolve. However, as terrorist atrocities continue to be committed, the publicís attention will inevitably turn to the arenas where radical and moderate ideas can be found in abundance- British universities. In order to address the risk of university level radicalisation, the government’s anti-terror initiative ‘Prevent’ has established a visible presence in an increasing number of British universities. For example, at York University, the Islamic Society was asked to turn over a list of committee members to a Prevent officer. At King’s College London, students wishing to log in to their emails are now greeted by a warning that their communication can be monitored and recorded at the university’s discretion.
As much as this is not an ideal situation for either institution, is there really an alternative? If they refused to comply with Prevent officers and a student was caught planning a terrorist attack, then the media backlash would be incalculable. While any intrusion into free thought is never welcomed, the previous examples don’t seem to be overly egregious.
Perhaps the real issue with Prevent in universities is one of image, rather than reality. Many students will be familiar with the quickly dropped plans to install CCTV outside mosques or the stories of primary school students being reported for playing Angry Birds. The earlier stages of the program were marred by overzealous politicians attempting to do whatever it takes to get results while completely ignoring the impact on minority communities.
However, now that these ‘teething problems’ have been worked through, Prevent stands out among world terror initiatives with thousands of at risk individuals having been reported before they could be approached by radial elements. What may end up making Prevent more bearable for university students is the new approach of countering radicalism across the social spectrum, rather than just Islamic Extremism. With extreme nationalist referrals now consisting almost a third of the total that Prevent receives, the initiative may finally be able to shed its ugly image and become accepted, if not held in especially high regard, by university students.