By Indigo Lilburn Quick, BA History and Politics
It has come to light that the activities of two societies at SOAS, the Palestine and Islamic Society, were subject of an inquiry by the Charities Commission due to various concerns. However, it now seems that the Charities Commission suspected violation of the government policy, Prevent. The reasons cited for this inquiry were due to the Islamic Society holding a gender segregated event and the Palestine Society hosting an event with a speaker that was deemed to hold extremist and anti-Israel views. Both of these occurrences fall under what the Prevent policy highlights as behaviour that could lead to extremism and the Prevent Duty Guidance calls on universities to stop such events from taking place. Neither society has wanted to comment on the ongoing investigation.
The Prevent policy is part of the Counter- Terrorism and Security Act 2015 and places a duty on certain bodies to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.” It includes specialist frame- works for higher education institutions to follow as the government views these institu- tions as key places where the radicalisation of young people is occurring. The framework also provides guidance for charities, a category that the Students’ Union (SU) falls under. e current regulatory body for universities is the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). HEFCE allocates funding and ensures universities comply with the law. Under HEFCE, SOAS complied to the legal bare minimum in terms of Prevent policy as it was deemed to stifle free speech on campus. However, on the 1st of April 2018 the role of HEFCE will be taken over by the Office for Students, headed by Jo Johnson. Complying with Prevent is a priority in the process of joining the Office for Students and receiving funding. The university must submit annual reports demonstrating its implementation of Prevent, which currently includes specialist staff training and IT policies. Having said this, the university administration’s stance is far from simple: Baroness Amos has given evidence to the ongoing inquiry by the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights Inquiry into Freedom of Speech at University states the confusion on the subject of free speech on campus has created a “chilling effect” on campus.
The official statement on the SOAS website raises no issues with the policy and in the annual report on Prevent the school seem to be making an effort to implement measures beyond their initial commitment to the legal minimum. Furthermore, this annual report contains two requests under the last section of “Areas of Good Practice or Where Further Support May Be Required” stating “ the School would welcome further support around extreme political activism and action and support from HEFCE around all events, not just those directly with Prevent implications.” This suggests that the university deems political activism outside of the Prevent agenda to be a major concern they wish to curb with the help of the government, which may come as a shock to many students. Moreover, they request “advice on how SOAS can suitably engage with student body and Students’ Union that has significant opposition towards Prevent,” suggesting that they no longer stand with the Student’s Union in its opposition to Prevent but want to bring it more in line with the administration’s current policy.
The SOAS SU currently has a policy of non-compliance and are lobbying “against Prevent” and “to not comply with CTS requirements as far as possible within the confines of the law.” The SU claim Prevent “demonises Muslim and BME students and victimises those with mental health issues” and “creates an insecure environment for students and limits the space for debate, as students feel monitored and under threat of surveillance.” A representative from the SU, that wished to remain anonymous, described Prevent as “working in the shadows” and using intimidation to enforce Islamophobic ideas. Regarding the two societies that have been subject to an inquiry, the representative highlighted the fact that for both “offences” neither were results of any extremist trying to radicalise the members but requests of the members as the events upheld their religious or political views.
They went on to make clear the SU does not believe the university is doing enough to protect students from “racist” Prevent policy, telling the Spirit “we don’t feel like the school has the students’ backs” and highlighting the fact that the monitoring of students is making many students feel unsafe. The representative has said they will fight Prevent through legal means and if this does not work they will fight it through political means. The SU submitted written evidence to the aforementioned inquiry into freedom of speech at universities that emphasised the “incoherent” and “inconsistent” nature of Prevent policy and the negative effects of Prevent on healthy debate and the feeling of safety among many students.
The increased measures SOAS are taking could be due to them being highlighted by several organisations as allowing extremist ideas to have a platform. This was brought up by then Prime Minister David Cameron in a speech claiming SOAS had hosted “extremist hate preachers” and was not upholding its legal duty in terms of counter-terrorism measures. Furthermore, influential think tank the Henry Jackson Society, in their 2016-2017 report on extreme speakers and events named SOAS as the most extreme university in the country hosting 12.5% of events they deemed likely to uphold and reinforce extremist ideas. Only 3 of the 112 events flagged by the Henry Jackson society had far-right speakers, with the remaining 109 events being (including all those deemed extreme at SOAS) concerned with extreme Islam. Critics of the policy state that this demonstrates the biased nature of the policy in the types of groups it targets. In response the university issued a statement highlighting the need for “freedom of debate and robust discussion”, though within the remits of the law.
This issue is present in other universities, some of whom have been taking drastic measures to surveil students’ they believe to be vulnerable to radicalisation, such as Kings College London (KCL) who have admitted to monitoring emails. Nagdee claimed Prevent is a “deeply repressive and a tool of amassing state power, by giving the government license to mark out as ‘extremist’ any stances that challenge their domestic and foreign policy lines,” implying it is not simply to prevent terrorism and extremism. The NUS have been combatting Prevent through hosting a Students Not Suspects national tour of campuses; releasing a handbook on Prevent (which can be found here: https://www.nusconnect.org.uk/articles/preventing-prevent-an-updated-handbook); and building a campaign against it on campuses by supporting campuses to start up local anti-Prevent campaigns and supporting legal cases against the Prevent duty.
Both the SOAS SU and the NUS highlight the importance of coordinated effort between staff and students in combating Prevent and creating policy throughout our unions (including the UCU and non-academic staff’s unions) that makes Prevent “unworkable.” Furthermore, they made clear the importance of awareness and solidarity with Muslim and BME students adversely affected by its “racist” and “Islamophobic” nature and the need “to be brave in taking it on.”
If you have been affected by Prevent policies useful resources can be found here: http://www.preventwatch.org/ and by talking to the Student’s Union officers in G8.