As part of the government’s new strategy and under its new guidance to combating extremism, university lecturers and student union officials are obliged to inform the police in case they witness a Muslim student behaving as if he/she is depressed or isolated, or there is fear the student might become radicalized.
But, student union officials and university lecturers expressed shock at the new guidelines, which have resulted in deep discomfort among them and are seen as an infringement of students’ civil liberties.
Officials implementing the government’s revamped ‘Prevent’ strategy are training frontline university employees in how to spot students vulnerable to extremism.
Documents handed to staff claim that students who seem depressed or who are estranged from their families, who bear political grievances, or who use extremist websites or have poor access to mainstream religious instruction could be at risk of radicalization.
The National Union of Students has told its officers that they do not have to provide police with details about students unless they are presented with a warrant.
James Haywood, president of Goldsmiths college students’ union in south-east London, met two Prevent officials last week. He said they began by asking about Muslim students and whether the college had problems with its Islamic Society.
“We were appalled to have Prevent officers asking us to effectively spy on our Muslim students. To pass on details of a student who the police consider ‘vulnerable’ is not only morally repugnant but is against the confidential nature of pastoral support. After the rise of hate groups such as the English Defence League, and the recent massacre in Norway, why are Prevent not also telling us to refer on students who have an irrational hatred of Islam?” he said.
Universities that agree to the renewed version of the scheme are trained to refer “at risk” students to Prevent officials. The student is then monitored by a panel including a detective from Scotland Yard, who assess any potential terror threat. The student is not made aware at any stage that they are under investigation.
The Prevent strategy was first launched in 2007 and sought to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism.
A recent government report said there were 40 English universities where there could be a “particular risk” of radicalization, although the names of the universities have not been released.
The University and College Union (UCU) said that the government’s strategy risked damaging the relationship between staff and students. “Staff have made it quite clear that they do not wish to police their students or engage in any activity that might erode the trust between them and students,” it said.
The Federation of Student Islamic Societies, an organisation that provides support to Muslim students across the UK and Ireland, said: “Spying on a completely innocent group of people is an affront to our human rights. Islamic Societies and Muslim students make a positive contribution to British civic life – and they must be supported.
“We have continued in our dialogue with the government to say that engaging with Muslim students, not spying on them, is what will make our country safer and more cohesive. Prevent is long-discredited now in civic society. We need an intelligent approach to security policy rather than one driven by political motives.”
Professor Ted Cantle, executive chair of the Institute of Community Cohesion, warned that the government’s new policy risked stigmatizing Muslims.
“The government shouldn’t be bringing in people who have little understanding of the Muslim community and radicalization and asking them to pronounce and point the finger,” he said.