Counter-terror strategy faces university opposition
The government’s counter-terrorism strategy is facing opposition on university campuses over concerns it is discriminatory and encourages spying.
Student groups and lecturers have moved to distance themselves from Prevent, a Home Office initiative that aims to combat violent extremism, after being asked to report Muslim students deemed vulnerable to radicalisation.
The National Union of Students (NUS) is expected to table a motion at its conference next month condemning as “totally unacceptable” approaches by Prevent officers asking for details of student Islamic society members.
The motion, a draft of which has been seen by the Guardian, will call on delegates from across Britain to “stand in solidarity with those negatively affected by Prevent”.
It adds: “The language, concepts and unspecific terms of definition used in the Prevent strategy are unhelpfully generalist and in some cases problematic, and could well be open to discriminatory interpretations.”
The NUS says it received government assurances in September last year that student unions would no longer be approached to provide students’ details, after the Guardian revealed university staff had been asked to inform on depressed or isolated Muslim students.
Since then, however, sources at the University of Bradford say they have been asked to disclose students’ names and dates of birth to a liaison officer working as part of Prevent, who attended activist meetings on campus.
The university confirmed that it worked with counter-terror police as part of a programme involving “risk and tension monitoring”, and that it had a member of staff who worked as a Prevent liaison officer. It denied the officer had requested names or monitored meetings.
On 6 February a home affairs committee review of Prevent concluded that students with extremist views were not always “subject to equal and robust challenge” at universities and recommended this be remedied with new government guidance.
The £60m strategy is facing rising resistance on campuses across the country, with a growing list of university unions – including those at Warwick, Manchester Metropolitan and Goldsmiths – saying they have declined offers to work in partnership with it.
A London-wide student manifesto calling for Prevent to be “reviewed extensively” has been authored by union representatives from King’s College, the London School of Economics, University of the Arts London, Queen Mary and Imperial College.
There is equal unease among university staff, some of whom have been offered training in how to detect and report warning signs that a student is a potential extremist.
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) said it was concerned that, despite far-right groups being identified as a possible threat, Muslims continued to be singled out as part of the strategy, predominantly targeted at combating Islamist extremism associated with or influenced by al-Qaida.
“We’re happy with information and awareness raising; what we’re not happy with is the idea that teachers and lecturers are going to be trained to monitor a specific ethnic group,” said Norman Crowther, an ATL spokesman.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Prevent aims to turn people away from violent extremism. It is not about spying or intelligence gathering. The Prevent strategy makes clear that universities have a responsibility to help protect vulnerable young people from radicalisation. The vast majority of them recognise this and take part in Prevent.”