What do students think about Prevent?

The Home Office has published findings from some survey work on “Prevent”, carried out last August to better understand public knowledge, attitudes and behaviours surrounding its controversial counter-terrorism strategy.

There are of course some specific aspects of “Prevent” that impact universities – and funnily enough in England it’s that time of year again when providers have submit their annual compliance return.

Prevent has tended to be consistently unpopular with trade unions, student activists and some SUs – NUS’ “Students not Suspects” campaign ran for a number of years, and more broadly a number of observers have tended to argue that Prevent exerts a chilling effect on freedom of speech, both generally given the external speaker approval processes many universities and SUs introduced at the turn of the last decade, and specifically on Muslim students and speakers that may hold controversial views.

As well as surveys aimed at the general public and another for professionals, a “booster” survey was carried out among 500 students in England and Wales who have heard of Prevent – officially because the Home Office considered it important to engage with communities who have reported feeling more anxious about counterterrorism policy, and to “listen to their views and concerns” – but we’d guess unofficially to test a hypothesis that’s there a gulf between activist/campaign views on Prevent and wider student opinion.

That hypothesis looks like it’s been proved here. It looks like students that have an opinion are pretty favourable – and even British Muslims appear to be much more positive than we might expect:

Officially, Prevent entails three strands of work. There’s work on “tackling the causes of radicalisation” that helps build resilience in communities – for example by funding community-led projects as well as removing terrorist content from the internet. There’s “early intervention for those at risk of radicalisation” that can include mentoring, theological guidance or career advice. And then there’s “rehabilitation”, offering an intensive intervention aimed at those who have already committed terrorism offences.

The British Muslim and student samples showed similar views towards all three strands – roughly 75% positive versus 5% negative on all three – although both were were less likely to be favourable towards the rehabilitation strand, which ICM puts down to the high percentage of students within the Muslim sample.

A big concern is obviously that Prevent impacts freedom of speech and contradicts confidentiality expectations and rules. Over half of students and teachers felt that Prevent has not negatively impacted freedom of speech and ability to speak freely, which ICM says correlates with an independent study by Coventry University which found that there was relatively little support for the idea that the duty has led to a “chilling effect” on conversations with students in the classroom and beyond.

That said, British Muslim students were significantly more likely than the overall student cohort to agree that Prevent has negatively impacted their ability to talk freely in class – 19% against the overall student cohort result of 12%. If one in five Muslim students feel this way, that feels like a major problem with freedom of speech and expression on campus to overcome.

One response to “What do students think about Prevent?

  1. Before Prevent’s apologists leap from the finding that most students are happy with the Strategy to a conclusion of ‘nothing to see here’, we need to probe deeper into the evidence. First, a majoritarian approach (58% favourable) misses the point that Prevent is rarely critiqued for its impact on all – or even a majority – of students, but on a minority who are stigmatised because of their religion and/or ethnicity. Even when only a minority of Muslims are open about being unfavourable, that’s still a large number of people (if the proportion is mirrored among Muslim students, then we’re talking about approximately 34,500 individuals within the UK HE sector, not including Muslim HE staff). Second, we need to ask about which kinds of attitudes or viewpoints are associated with Prevent, and what kind of influence does it have on UK universities. In a study of student attitudes I published with colleagues earlier this year (link below), we found a strong correlation between support for Prevent and negative perspectives on Islam and Muslims. High levels of approval of Prevent may disguise its subtle reinforcement of Islamophobic attitudes.


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