Most students will be aware that the University of Glasgow is one of the many institutions of higher education in the UK to adhere to the government’s controversial Prevent anti-terror programme. The Prevent programme was introduced to the UK several years ago; ostensibly, it’s a set of policies applied to many public institutions that involves, among other things, banning “extremist” speakers from campuses and using staff to scrutinise individuals who look or act suspicious according to government guidelines on radicalisation. Controversy over the programme is ubiquitous, with critics claiming Prevent is both inaccurate and discriminatory, and supporters citing the present climate of threat, and thus the necessity of such policies.
The National Union of Students has come out in unequivocal condemnation of Prevent, organising a campaign called Students Not Suspects, and stating that Prevent “normalises Islamophobia” and “turns public sector workers into spies.” This utilisation of public sector workers as informal government informers doesn’t stop on university campuses either – English schools have recently been informed that they are expected to gather data on the nationality and country of birth of pupils – particularly non-white children – which has led to worries that the data will be used by immigration enforcement, as well as creating a climate of division in classrooms.
The Home Office states that “Universities will be expected to carry out a risk assessment for their institution which assesses where and how their students might be at risk of being drawn into terrorism. This includes not just violent extremism but also non-violent extremism, which can create an atmosphere conducive to terrorism and can popularise views which terrorists exploit.” The issue here is that “atmospheres” by their nature, are ill-defined and often difficult to make confident decisions about when this isn’t in your job description. There’s also the rich and important irony that terrorists will often encourage feelings of being persecuted in potential supporters – and what better way to legitimise this view than placing vulnerable sections of the population under intense, prejudiced scrutiny in the very places they are meant to feel important and valued?
Those who will be disproportionately targeted will begin to fear voicing opinions that could be viewed as at all seditious – when those who are meant to be listening in on you aren’t skilled intelligence operatives but worried public sector workers, then it’s pretty difficult to be able to pinpoint what counts as sinister. Earlier this year, a high school student was investigated by Prevent for wearing a pro-Palestine badge and handling pro-Palestine leaflets, although supporters of the programme defended the decision, saying “misinformation and false claims” were being spread about the programme and that the school was “right to be concerned.”
We need a fully functioning security apparatus in the UK to deal with potential threats, but it often feels that both the concept and implementation of policies such as Prevent and school pupil background inspections leaves much to be desired. Institutions such as schools and universities in particular are places where young and impressionable individuals have character-building experiences, and learn about the world and their place within it. What does it say for the future of our learning establishments if they become characterised by unrest, division and suspicion meted out to certain members – some of whom may need support and acceptance the most in a nation beset with racism and xenophobia? And what does it say for the protracted debate on campuses about free speech and debate? The quality of the discourse in seminars will certainly be in peril if students begin to self-censor for fear of coming across as inflammatory, especially in subjects such as politics, where contentious current affairs are often raised as subjects for debate.
The world is frequently terrifying in a confusing and senseless manner, and those who wish us harm frequently do not announce themselves in an obvious fashion before it is too late. But whether roping in the staff of educational establishments as part of an amateur security apparatus is worth the upset and alienation that these policies cause seems uncertain. Scrutinising students of all ages to see if they are budding terrorists or illegal immigrants creates a backdrop against which already potentially vulnerable groups lose faith in those who are meant to be supporting and encouraging them, as well as reminding them that nowadays, Muslims and other minority groups are viewed as guilty by default.
Does Prevent help us fight radicalisation on British university campuses and schools? Potentially yes, but it also creates a backdrop against which students feel vulnerable to profiling and suspicion, and where valuable debate about difficult political topics in a safe space can be stifled. It places undue pressure on students and staff, twisting what should be a relationship of mutual respect and fundamentally, trust, into something to be utilised by security services.