Staff asked 'to spy' on Muslims in UK universities

The government's Prevent programme aims to find angry, depressed or estranged Islamic students who could be recruited by terrorists.

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LONDON // Lecturers and student groups in Britain are voicing growing anger at a new government antiterrorism strategy aimed at getting university staff to spy on Muslim undergraduates considered "vulnerable" to radicalisation.

Campus staff - ranging from lecturers and student leaders, to clerics and porters - are being advised by police and government officials on how to spot young Muslims who might be targets for Islamic extremists.

According to new guidance under the government's Prevent programme, traits that university staff should look out for in Muslim undergraduates include loneliness, "anger at foreign policy; depression or estrangement from their families".

When the new academic year starts later this month, staff will be expected to pass on their fears to officials so that the information can be assessed by a Prevent panel.

The University and College Union (UCU), the UK's largest trade union for academic staff and lecturers, warned in a statement yesterday that the policy could fundamentally damage 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," the union said.

Meanwhile, the National Union of Students (NUS), which represents more than a million students in higher education, has ordered its officers not to provide details about any students unless presented with a warrant by police.

Earlier this year, a government report said there were about 40 unnamed universities where there was a "particular risk" of students being radicalised.

A report in The Guardian this week said that campuses in London and North West England had already been visited by Prevent officials and police offering advice on the new strategy to staff.

Goldsmiths College in SE London was visited last week. James Haywood, the president of the local NUS, said that two Prevent officials had held out the offer of funding for "interfaith activities" if student union staff reported students considered at risk of radicalisation.

"We were appalled to have Prevent officers asking us to effectively spy on our Muslim students," Mr Hayward told The Guardian after the meeting. "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?"

Des Freedman, UCU secretary at the college, added: "It appears that only Muslim students are to be targeted under the Prevent programme.

"Not only is this deeply discriminatory, but it radically alters the relationship between staff and students. We take our pastoral responsibilities very seriously but spying is not in our job description as far as I am aware."

Farooq Murad, the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain - an umbrella group representing more than 400 Muslim organisations in the UK - also rejected the latest Prevent programme initiative.

"For Muslims and public policy, security has become the only consideration on the agenda," he said. "It contains the implicit assumption that Muslims are less able to function in an open democracy than other people, more susceptible to totalitarian impulses and that they are more open to be incited to violence.

"It sends a very negative message to the community and is likely to increase Islamophobia."

However, the Home Office defended the new strategy. "The Prevent programme is about stopping people being drawn into terrorism," it said in a statement.

"We all have an interest in that and we expect universities and colleges to play a full and constructive role in that aim.

"The new Prevent strategy helps universities and colleges fulfil their duty of care to their students. The government has not received any representations from educational institutions saying they will not take part."

But Nabil Ahmed, president of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, 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.