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Taking our education on Prevent seriously

Robert Van de Noort

The University's Acting Vice-Chancellor, Robert Van de Noort, has written an Op-Ed piece in Times Higher this week. Here is the full text:

The University of Reading has been in the news recently following an Observer article highlighting the application of a University policy arising from the Government’s Prevent strategy to an essay by the late Marxist scholar Professor Norman Geras.

 

As the acting Vice-Chancellor, the issue is quite frankly troubling. Our approach has always been to preserve and protect the freedoms that underpin academia – academic freedom and freedom of speech – and this incident, at first glance, appears to be a departure from that commitment.

The Government’s Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015 assigned responsibility to individual institutions to interpret and implement the legislation in a local context. In doing so, it provided some limited guidance about what kinds of materials might be considered ‘security-sensitive’ that could accessed in the course of academia. That guidance, which the University used in our own policy states:

‘Security-sensitive’ material includes, but is not limited to: material which might be thought to encourage the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism, material which would be useful in the commission of acts of terrorism, and/or material which glorifies acts of terrorism.

This is a broad, arguably ambiguous, definition that relies heavily on interpretation and context and I fully acknowledge that in this case an unduly cautious approach led to error. So it is critical that we as an institution but also as a sector learn from this, as I do not believe that the circumstances leading to this error are unique to Reading.

In common with many higher education institutions, our desire in implementing the Prevent strategy is to empower academics and students to engage critically with ideas and arguments, free from self-censorship. Those arguments include Professor Geras’ essay, which was selected for the reading list of our year three module on ‘Responsibility for Injustice’, to help students question how we might challenge injustice.

At Reading, there is no ‘flag list’ and we do not have a mechanism to create such a list. Instead, a message can be attached to materials advising students of their sensitive nature. Nor is any single author, source or type of work is automatically deemed security sensitive. It would be both impractical and undesirable to develop a prescriptive policy that could cover all eventualities without unduly the freedom of our academics to teach using the most relevant and appropriate material. 

Instead our policy entrusts to our academics, as experts in their field, the initial decision-making about how the policy and its procedures are applied. This is based on their understanding of the material, its relevance to the course and the context in which it is being taught. There are also checks and balances in the procedures to provide for challenge and review before the security message is applied.

However, there are also potential flaws in this broader approach that have been highlighted in this case. The Prevent strategy is still relatively new and there is little ‘precedent’ either at Reading or nationally to guide individuals in making these decisions. Where there is discretion, there will inevitably be error, particularly where competing principles are at play.

The security message on Professor Geras’ work has now, rightly, been removed and we have communicated to those students expected to read Our Morals that there are no safeguards required for accessing. Perhaps more importantly, though, we are ensuring that we learn from this incident to avoid a repeat.

Since learning about the incident, we have consulted with the Department for Education and are currently undertaking a review to identify categories of material where we can be unambiguous that the ‘security sensitive’ label should not apply, for example, material published in peer-reviewed journals. Updated guidance would aim to ensure that essays such as those by Professor Geras would not require consideration.

Universities exist for learning. If we do not admit in complicated areas of policy such as Prevent that there is the space to learn, we are denying the institutional values that we espouse to our students. At the University of Reading, we are taking this principle seriously.

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