Professors now required to "spy" on students by law. Not everyone is keen.

Professors, students and the NUS have expressed their concerns that the new requirement for professors to "spy" on their students may stifle free speech.

A law requiring schools to report "any potential radicals" to the authorities has just been extended to universities. The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 will now require university lecturers and professors to report anyone who expresses "extreme" views to the police.

Academics are worried that the "Prevent" scheme, which also asks lecturers to report anyone who expresses "a desire for political or moral change", will stop free discussions at university.

"Every student has an extreme view, every now and then"

One professor, Julian Stallabrass, from the University of London said that he refused to "spy on his students".

"Prevent threatens to pollute the relations between lecturers and students by obliging teachers to spy on their students and report suspicious attitudes and activities to the authorities," he told the Metro.

"If this was just to do with criminal activity, it would be the duty of any citizen – but it extends to such worrying matters as 'a desire for political or moral change'. It will have a stifling effect on free speech."

Others are worried that students will restrain themselves from expressing their extreme views for fear of being reported to the police, and as a result their ideas won't be challenged.

"Everyone tends to have an extreme view every now and then," one PHD student told Student Money Saver.

"I spent one seminar in my undergrad degree arguing that it was morally fine for me to kill everyone in the room because I was a solipsist, and no-one else technically existed."

"If Prevent had been a law back then, I would probably have to explain the finer points of solipsism to the police. From a jail cell I'd share with some Marxists."

"I didn't really believe that it was fine to kill everyone, obviously. It was just a passing phase."

Julian Stallabrass, who says he will not spy on his students.

10 year old's house raided

The counter-terrorism scheme is designed to capture extremists through school-led interventions. It has been in schools since 2011, and not without controversy. You may remember it is the same scheme that led to a 10 year old boy’s house being raided by the police after he mistakenly wrote he lived in a "terrorist" house rather than "terraced" house.

As well as concerns with how the scheme is being implemented, the NUS is concerned with the atmosphere the act will create in universities and the speed at which the scheme is being implemented:

"NUS has a number of serious concerns about the Government’s new Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, both in terms of ramifications we foresee upon its implementation, as well as the underlying rhetoric being invoked and the atmosphere it creates." The NUS said.

"The expansion of the ‘PREVENT’ and ‘Channel’ initiatives under the proposals concern us gravely. Placing a vague statutory responsibility on universities to ‘prevent people being drawn into terrorism’, and giving the Government undefined powers to order that ‘extremist’ speakers be banned risks further developing a culture of suspicion and surveillance on campuses, whilst also potentially conflicting with institutions’ duties to promote freedom of speech, by making them overly risk-averse and unwilling to engage in important topics of discussion."

"We are also alarmed about the speed at which the Bill is being introduced. Rushed laws are very often ill-thought out, or otherwise poorly scrutinised, and we will continue to strongly oppose the Bill whilst calling for a thorough assessment into the legality of its proposals."

"The direct impact which this Bill will have on education should be the subject of forensic scrutiny. Any expectation by the state for academic staff to be involved in monitoring their students is deeply worrying, and could have a chilling effect on relations between staff and students. We fundamentally believe that universities and colleges are places for education, not surveillance."

We call for the Bill to be stopped with immediate effect, and we support an enquiry into the legality of the proposals under the Equality Act 2010 and the Education Act No. 2 1986.

We are as always committed to working with institutions and maintaining dialogue with them and safeguarding against the Bill causing divisions. We will be working with partners and stakeholders both within the education sector and beyond to ensure civil liberties are not curtailed by this Bill and to counter and oppose it along with the damaging rhetoric that surrounds it.

Immediate review

The University and College Union (UCU) are also calling for an immediate review of the legislation, calling it draconian, and questioning the effectiveness of "spying" on students:

"Prevent puts the onus on various public bodies to have 'due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism'. What this means in reality is that teachers, doctors, lecturers, and other public officials are expected to monitor behaviour and report anything they suspect as being "extreme" or people they believe may been drawn to extremism." UCU said.

"We do not believe that draconian crackdowns on the rights to debate controversial issues will achieve the ends the government says it seeks. The best response to acts of terror against UK civilians is to maintain and defend an open and democratic society in which discriminatory behaviour is effectively challenged. The right to raise difficult and unpopular issues is a vital part of this."

"The duty is now a legal requirement but we must ensure that it does not erode the freedoms it purports to protect. We call on the government to immediately review the legislation to ensure that, for this and future generations, the duties do not have the negative effect that we fear."

Too scared to speak out

The PHD student we spoke to said he'd be "worried about expressing his solipsism" if this legislation was in force back when he was doing his undergraduate degree.

"Maybe I wouldn't have mentioned my views on solipsism if I had thought I could be arrested for it," he said.

"Who knows, maybe I'd still be a solipsist now if they hadn't heckled me so badly in that seminar. I wouldn't have had my ass handed to me, that's for sure."

Like this? Check out the story about the 10 year old boy’s house being raided by the police after he mistakenly wrote he lived in a "terrorist" house rather than "terraced" house.