Student activists at the University of Edinburgh have occupied the ground floor lobby of the Main Library at George Square, demanding that the University publicly denounce the UK government’s anti-radicalisation PREVENT strategy.
PREVENT, which requires universities to monitor students deemed to be at risk of radicalisation, has been criticised for its alleged disproportionate focus on international students and those of minority ethnic background.
Student campaigners have also highlighted its implications for free speech on campus, as the University reserves the right to terminate events if their content is judged to undermine community cohesion. Among the campaigners’ demands are that the University issue a statement denouncing PREVENT, recognise the autonomy of Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA), cease monitoring students within the Chaplaincy, and meet with representatives from Students Not Suspects, the occupation’s organisers.
Students Not Suspects say they intend to occupy the library overnight, preventing it from closing at the normal time of 2:30am. Speaking to The Student, an Edinburgh University security guard said that while the occupation was not officially authorised, security would be provided for the duration of the protest, due to end Tuesday morning at 10 o’clock.
In a statement to The Student, an Edinburgh University spokesperson said: “The University supports the right of all students to protest lawfully and peacefully. We are working with the students to ensure their safety and provide for their basic needs.”
Asked what message she wanted the occupation to convey to students, Shuwanna Aaron, Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) Group Convener, told The Student: “What I want students to know is that PREVENT exists, and it’s dangerous. That’s the one thing I want students to know.”
In an earlier press statement, Aaron called the PREVENT strategy “barbarous”.
She said: “The surveillance of students under the PREVENT agenda is damaging to our civil liberties and academic development. PREVENT does nothing but isolate and silence students who are Muslim, BME and those challenging the barbarous attacks by the government.”
In remarks to The Student, activists drew particular attention to the policy’s “chilling effect” on free speech. Protestors repeatedly alleged that the University, acting under PREVENT guidelines, had axed at least one planned student event, though these activists declined to specify which event was aborted and which student group had planned it.
Natasha Ion, a first-year student of French and history, told The Student that PREVENT “promotes extremism[…] it is both discriminatory and ineffective.”
In a statement to The Student, EUSA President Jonny Ross-Tatam said: “EUSA condemns the Government’s Prevent legislation. It is harmful and marginalising to Muslim students on campuses across the UK. We welcome the move from campaigners to highlight the damaging nature of this legislation.
“EUSA is an independent organisation and charity, however our buildings are leased from the University. This means the University is legally obliged to ensure the Prevent legislation is implemented for our room bookings.
“I am not aware of any event cancellations, but I do know that many students and events have been disrupted by this legislation. Many are concerned about being treated with suspicion as a result of this Government legislation, simply for organising debates on important issues.”
Images: Thurston Smalley