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NUS launches "Students not Suspects" national tour to challenge curtailment of academic freedom and student rights

NUS launches "Students not Suspects" national tour to challenge curtailment of academic freedom and student rights

Categories: Latest News

Friday September 04 2015

The Guardian reports on calls by the National Union of Students (NUS) to boycott the government’s “chilling” counter-radicalisation strategy saying it curtails freedom of expression and could increase Islamophobia on campuses.

The national students’ body has launched the “Students not Suspects Tour” London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Swansea where it will run a series of workshops to highlight the detrimental impact of the Government’s imposition of a new statutory duty on universities as mandated in the Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015. The NUS is supported in its opposition to the Government’s expansion of the Prevent duty by the University and College Union (UCU), the largest trade union for lecturers and academics in further and higher education.

The UCU expressed concerns over what it described as the “chilling effect” that Section 26 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 will have on academic freedom and debate. It also highlighted the “vague and not achievable” legal duties that have been imposed on institutions and staff. Some of these legal duties include identifying, sharing information about and reporting students suspected of being “at risk of being drawn into terrorism”, according to guidance published on 16 July. The NUS is calling for a boycott of the legislation.

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”.

In 2010, University College London’s student union gave the names and contact details of 900 members of the university’s Islamic society to MI5 and Ms Asquith fearsracial profiling and Islamophobia will 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 the union 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 the union was“monitor[ing] the implementation of Prevent in all further education and higher education institutions and will support any branch that decides to formally boycott the process”.

The NUS is also supported by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (Fosis), an umbrella group that claims to represent 130,000 Muslim students at higher and further education institutions in the UK and Ireland, the Black Students’ Campaign and civil rights group Defend the Right to Protest. The vice-president of student affairs at Fosis, Yusuf Hassan, said student unions are being placed in a difficult position. He said: “Terms such as radicalisation have not been defined or quantified. It is open to interpretation, leaving us in a difficult situation. 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 recent speech given by David Cameron challenging universities to crack down on extremist speakers on campuses he criticised 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 allegations levelled against CAGE by those determined to undermine its efforts to challenge state abuses of power has been marvellously dissected by researchers at Spinwatch.

The Prime Minister’s remarks and his singling out of the NUS and CAGE is symptomatic of the growing problem of silencing political dissent.

The fears of the government’s counter extremism strategy relayed by the NUS were also highlighted by hundreds of academics in an open letter which warned that the new Prevent guidance will have a “chilling effect” on academic freedom and risked criminalising Muslims for displaying outward signs of religiosity such as “growing a beard or wearing a hijab“.

Earlier in the year 500 academics signed an open letter criticising the Government’s plans to encroach upon academic freedom. Similar criticism of the government’s Prevent strategy was also highlighted by Lord Ken MacDonald in a comment piece in The Times in which he wrote the Prevent strategy would only lead to the undermining of academic freedom and the ludicrous prospect of criminalising debate on the works of Plato and other political philosophers.

The expansion of counter-extremism work to universities by the former Labour government raised profound fears amid claims lecturers and university staff werebeing asked to “spy” on Muslim students. The move resulted in deep discomfort among university lecturers and student union officials and was declared “stupid” by Professor Malcolm Grant, President and Provost of University College London.

The growing fear of Islamophobia on campuses and the consequences of poorly devised counter-extremism guidance was highlighted in 2008 when former doctoral student Dr Rizwaan Sabir was held for seven days without charge after downloading an al-Qaida training manual as part of his research. He was later released without charge and awarded £20,000 by police after it emerged that officers fabricated key elements of the case against him. His university’s handling of the affair also came under fire with senior academics being accused of “colluded to paint the two men [Sabir and Hicham Yezza] in a negative light despite no evidence of wrongdoing”.

Now a lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, where he specialises in counter-terrorism, Sabir said the Counter-Terrorism and Security creates a climate of fear, self-censorship and a danger that innocent people may be seen as future terrorists.

Sabir said: “The danger is that it will close down free discussion of ideas and it will not allow students to become critical thinkers, whether they become activists or members of corporations.”

The growing problem of Islamophobic media reporting about university campuses was brought to light in a Spinwatch investigation into the notorious activities of the so-called ‘Student Rights’ group.

The depiction of university campuses as “hotbeds of extremism” and the undue focus on them in counter extremism strategy is not without purpose. As Spinwatch note in their study, The Cold War on British Muslims, the preoccupation with left-wing activity in the universities as a central concern of the cold war counter-subversion ideology is being revisited on Muslims in the contemporary climate with its hyperbole about “Islamist extremism” in British universities.

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