The University of Sussex’s Student Union (USSU) recently issued a statement condemning the Government’s ‘Prevent’ duty.
The Prevent duty within Higher Education is part of Britain’s counter-terrorism policy, and aims to ‘stop people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorists’. Prevent came into force in 2011 but this year on September 19th, it was extended to publicly funded higher and further education, sparking controversy. University and college staff are now expected to carry out risk assessments focussed on ‘where and how their students might be at risk of being drawn into terrorism’.
Although the Government has been clear that Prevent aims simply to protect the United Kingdom and that no political nor racial groups will be ‘victimised’, the National Union of Students (NUS) have condemned it and a growing number of university students’ unions have followed suit. USSU’s Executive Committee worries: ‘(Prevent) recommends monitoring students who appear ‘withdrawn’ or seeking ‘political change’ (this could be anyone going through a tough time – or with an opinion). With the focus on preventing what the government terms ‘Islamic extremism’, the prospect of racial profiling and state-sponsored Islamophobia is all the worse: Black and Muslim students are bearing the brunt of a reactionary, racist agenda, while freedom of speech across the board is curtailed.’
According to Prevent, potential indicators of ‘radicalism’ or ‘extremism’ include ‘a need for identity, meaning and belonging’, ‘a desire for political and moral change’ and ‘relevant mental health issues.’
USSU notes that ‘the Prevent Strategy has been widely criticised for demonising Muslim students on campus’. On 24th November, a motion to ‘not comply/engage was passed in a quorate Council meeting’. The motion, put forward by Ethnic Minorities Officer Jaja Jasper Chinedum and Welfare Officer Rianna Gargiulo, states: ‘this union believes the implementation on campus of the Prevent Strategy on campus will not only isolate Muslim students but undermine the civil liberties of other groups such as environmental, political and humanitarian activists.’
They also state: ‘this union believes the monitoring and exclusion of ideas from public debate opposes the basic function of universities; introducing students to a variety of opinions and encouraging them to analyse and debate them’. They are not alone in this position: the National Union of Students (NUS) has suggested that Prevent ‘potentially conflict(s) with institutions’ duties to promote freedom of speech’. This summer, a coalition of academics and public figures – including seven Sussex academics – penned an open letter to the Independent saying ‘Prevent will have a chilling effect on open debate, free speech and political dissent. It will create an environment in which political change can no longer be discussed openly, and will withdraw to unsupervised spaces. Therefore, Prevent will make us less safe.’
As part of Prevent, each university is obliged to ‘develop an Action Plan in consultation with students and staff.’
A university spokesperson said: ‘At Sussex, we consider the Prevent Duty to be a transparent element of the ‘duty of care’ that underpins the pastoral and welfare aspects of student engagement procedures’ although USSU is concerned that identifying ‘relevant mental health issues’ as an area to be monitored under Prevent will lead students to be ‘victimised, stigmatised or treated differently.’ They say: ‘students should be offered help through Union and University Counselling services if they are indeed displaying symptoms such as ‘relevant mental health issues’’.
The university says: ‘As part of the legislation, universities are required to develop an action plan after consultation with staff and students that is proportionate to the level of risk that has been identified.
‘However, the plan should not change any of the existing policies or procedures of the University but rather, seeks to ensure that they are transparent. All Action Plans will be monitored by HEFCE (the Higher Education Funding Council for England).
‘It is also worth noting that the Prevent Duty specifically protects the right of academic Freedom of Speech.’
In the spirit of transparency, The Badger asked the university how open Sussex would be with students about how many members of staff receive training, and if the student body would be informed when any action was taken on campus following Prevent.
The University said: ‘The Government provides free training, known as WRAP (Workshops to Raise Awareness of Prevent), which is delivered through the local councils and/or the Regional Prevent coordinators. Some of our staff and some of the previous Students’ Union full-time officers have attended WRAP sessions.
‘We are waiting to hear about updated and improved training packages for the higher education sector and this training will be rolled out as soon as we have this information.’
An Executive Summary of Business for Senate freely available online which details a presentation given by the Director of Student Services, Claire Powrie, earlier this month, corroborates this but does not disclose the numbers of staff trained.
USSU has declared it will ‘refuse to engage, co-operate or comply with strategies which restrict Sussex students’ freedom to organise and their right to privacy’ but Rianna Gargiulo clarified that, although officers will not cooperate, they may ‘feed in’ in a way which would be ‘beneficial’. They would do this through organising consultations with the student body and then feeding them back to Student Services, who are coordinating the Action Plan.
In addition to lobbying Sussex to be transparent and working with campus trade unions to ‘combat’ Prevent, USSU has resolved to: ‘demand publication of how the policy is operating within the university and Students Union. This includes access to materials used to train staff and students, and holding consultations with the student body… USSU and the student officers will not engage in the Prevent Strategy. USSU will educate students on the dangers of the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill (CTSB) and the Prevent Strategies. USSU will publish an open letter to all Brighton and Hove Members of Parliament to ascertain whether they voted for or against the CTSB.’
At the nearby University of Brighton, the Student Union (BSU) has similarly condemned Prevent. According to BSU’s Twitter, a petition has also been launched by students not only for the Union to boycott Prevent but ‘opposing Prevent at the university as a whole.’ The motion was recently put to an online vote – ‘however, not enough students voted so it didn’t get passed.’ A first year University of Brighton student assured The Badger that a second petition had been launched.
Molly Maher, BSU Welfare Officer, wrote in a statement which was worded more forcefully than USSU’s and which was released on the BSU blog: ‘to boycott means to withdraw/refuse involvement; Student Union officers and staff are encouraged to participate in training and to be part of spying on students too. This policy would mandate our officers not to attend training and to actively oppose Prevent, educating students on the dangers it poses and fighting its poisonous agenda. The policy also details that the Student Union should lobby the university to be transparent about how it implements Prevent so that we can keep you informed about what is going on.’
The University of Sussex told The Badger that, if a similar petition were to be launched by their students, ‘Boycotting the Prevent Duty is not an option for the University; we are legally required to implement it. We can, however, and should, create an action plan and risk assessment that reflect our context and concerns.’
The University emphasised: ‘It is not our intention, in implementing the Prevent Duty, to establish strategies that restrict students’ freedom to organise or affect their rights to privacy… Prevent requires everyone to think about issues that are uncomfortable, to consider our own prejudices, to rethink what is ‘normal’ behaviour, and to consider how identities are fragmented and complex.’
The Students’ Unions at Sussex and Brighton aimed to organise a shared day of information about Prevent last week, but it didn’t happen and they have now re-scheduled ‘Preventing Prevent: Day of Action’ for 7th December.
Freya Marshall Payne News Editor