The National Union of Students is calling for a boycott of the government’s counter-radicalisation strategy to monitor students and has launched a national tour in five cities to oppose it.
The “Students not Suspects” tour – which will take in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Swansea – is backed by the University and College Union (UCU), the largest trade union for lecturers and academics in further and higher education.
The UCU has expressed concern over what it described as the “chilling effect” that Section 26 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 has had on academic freedom and debate, as well as its “vague and not achievable” legal duty on institutions and staff.
It has issued guidance to members, saying it will support boycotts of the legislation.
The legal duties the act heaped on public bodies, including higher education establishments, include recognising, sharing information about and reporting students suspected of being “at risk of being drawn into terrorism”, according to guidance published on 16 July.
Shelly Asquith, NUS vice-president, said that although the legislative changes apply to universities and not student unions they have created a “level of expectation that student unions will sign up to whatever colleges or universities say”.
The guidance says student unions are expected to work closely with their institutions, cooperate with their policies and consider Prevent awareness training.
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Asquith said Prevent – the government’s flagship anti-radicalisation strategy – has had a negative impact on freedom of expression on campuses. NUS members have reported being asked by police to get training so they can spot students at risk of radicalisation, and being asked for names of members of Islamic societies, she said.
Asquith said she feared racial profiling and Islamophobia would get worse under the new rules.
Malia Bouattia, the NUS’s black students officer, said: “In bringing their battle ‘for hearts and minds’ – and against dissent – to spaces of education with the new act, the government is inviting to our campuses the same brutality that plagues black and Muslim people at the hands of the police and state in wider society.
“After decades of racist laws and abuse, it is time students alongside their communities finally fought back.”
A UCU spokesperson said it was “working closely with our student partners to protect the interests of staff and students and for the repeal of this iniquitous legislation”.
The spokesperson added that the UCU was working “to monitor the implementation of Prevent in all further education and higher education institutions and we will support any branch that decides to formally boycott the process”.
The NUS will run a series of workshops and actions in the five cities next month. It is also backed by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (Fosis), the Black Students’ Campaign and civil rights group Defend the Right to Protest.
Yusuf Hassan, the vice-president of student affairs at Fosis, the umbrella group representing 130,000 Muslim students at higher and further education institutions in the UK and Ireland, said student unions are being placed in a difficult position.
“Terms such as radicalisation have not been defined or quantified. It is open to interpretation, leaving us in a difficult situation,” Hassan said. “It is not, nor should it be within the ability of a student or lecturer to report on extremism or people showing signs of it.
“It is not just about suspects for the police but suspects to your friends because of this dynamic.”
In a speech in Birmingham in July in which he challenged universities to crack down on extremist speakers on campuses, David Cameron castigated the NUS for “choosing to ally yourselves with an organisation like Cage, which called Jihadi John a ‘beautiful young man’ and told people to support the jihad in Iraq and Afghanistan”.
The NUS described the prime minister’s comments as “misleading” and said it did not have any relationship with Cage.
Meanwhile, Goldsmiths University UCU and Student Union have called for a boycott and repeal of the Prevent counter-terrorism strategy.
A joint statement reads: “As members of staff and students at Goldsmiths, we are proud of our commitment to, and record of, challenging any expression of prejudice or discrimination directed against any group or individual – whether in the shape of racism, Islamophobia or anti-Semitism or in discriminatory attitudes to people on the basis of their sexuality, gender or disability.
“When any member of the Goldsmiths community is faced with the risk of harm, there are established procedures of prompt referral that every member of staff should be aware of and should be able to act on accordingly.
“In addition, it is essential that in order to explore a full range of views and opinions and, where necessary, to challenge them, we actively promote a climate of free discussion and debate. There should be no fear that this will incur suspicion or limit free expression within the boundaries of our equality and diversity policy and disciplinary codes on harassment and abuse.
“It is essential that legitimate political opinions expressed by staff or students are not in any way regarded as ‘extreme’ or as promoting ‘extremism’. In the context of the Government’s new ‘Prevent’ legislation as applied to Higher Education – Section 31 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 – we believe that it it is perfectly legitimate, for example, to criticise government foreign policy; to oppose the wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan; to express support for Palestinian rights or to express either support for or opposition to the Israeli government.
“Neither is it extreme or illegitimate to hold that the rise of terrorism or hostility to western governments is a direct result of recent UK foreign policy. One may agree or disagree with such views, however they form part of legitimate discussion and debate; they are widespread in the political and academic sphere and in society at large. They are neither ‘extreme’, nor should they be presented as ‘excusing’ or providing cover for ‘extremism’ or acts of violence or terror.
“Yet the new legislation requires Higher Education staff to monitor students who are suspected of engaging in ‘active opposition to fundamental British values’ and to police ‘extremist’ speakers and students on campus. We believe that the Prevent Agenda will force our staff to spy on students, that it is fundamentally discriminatory towards Muslims, and that it legitimises Islamophobia and xenophobia.
“We also believe that the monitoring of Muslim students will destroy the trust needed for a safe and supportive learning environment and encourage discrimination against BME and Muslim staff and students. We therefore declare our opposition to the Prevent agenda and pledge to work towards its repeal.
“Goldsmiths UCU and Goldsmiths Students Union resolve to present the above to Goldsmiths SMT as an agreed set of principles and to seek clarification from SMT about how it intends to implement Prevent without discriminating against Muslim students, without undermining academic freedom and without potentially criminalising legitimate campus activism.