Prevent critics slam Reading for labelling ‘mainstream’ academic text as extremist.
An essay by a prominent leftwing academic that examines the ethics of socialist revolution has been targeted by a leading university using the government’s counter-terrorism strategy.
Students at the University of Reading have been told to take care when reading an essay by the late Professor Norman Geras, in order to avoid falling foul of Prevent.
Third-year politics undergraduates have been warned not to access it on personal devices, to read it only in a secure setting, and not to leave it lying around where it might be spotted “inadvertently or otherwise, by those who are not prepared to view it”. The alert came after the text was flagged by the university as “sensitive” under the Prevent programme.
The essay, listed as “essential” reading for the university’s Justice and Injustice politics module last year, is titled Our Morals: The Ethics of Revolution. Geras was professor emeritus of government at the University of Manchester until his death in 2013. He rejected terrorism but argued that violence could be justified in the case of grave social injustices.
Waqas Tufail, a senior lecturer in criminology at Leeds Beckett University who wrote a report about Prevent last year, described the case at Reading as “hugely concerning”. Another Prevent expert, Fahid Qurashi of Staffordshire University, said the move showed how anti-terrorism legislation is “being applied far beyond its purview”.
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Ilyas Nagdee, black students’ officer for the National Union of Students, said the case again highlighted “misunderstanding of the [counter-terrorism guidance].”
The strategy, itself controversial, is meant to divert people before they offend, and requires universities to monitor students’ and academics’ access to material that could be considered extremist. The scheme has repeatedly come under fire since its remit was expanded by the coalition government in 2011. Critics argue that it has curtailed academic freedom by encouraging universities to cancel appearances by extremist speakers and for fostering a “policing culture” in higher education.
Tufail added: “This text was authored by a mainstream, prominent academic who was well-regarded in his field, who was a professor at Manchester for many years and whose obituary was published in the Guardian. This case raises huge concerns about academic freedom and students’ access to material, and it raises wider questions about the impact of Prevent.” The text was identified as potentially sensitive by an academic convening the course. “This is almost worse because it means academics are now engaging in self-censorship,” Tufail said.
Nagdee said: “Prevent fundamentally alters the relationship between students and educators, with those most trusted with our wellbeing and development forced to act as informants. As this case shows, normal topics that are discussed as a matter of course in our educational spaces are being treated as criminal”.
The University of Reading said: “Lecturers must inform students in writing if their course includes a text deemed security-sensitive, and then list which students they expect will have to access the material.
“As laid out in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, the University of Reading has put policies in place to take steps to prevent students being drawn into terrorism.” One aspect of this is to safeguard staff and students who access security-sensitive materials legitimately and appropriately used for study or research.”