The recent experience of Mohammed Umar Farooq at Staffordshire University confirms my worst fears about the statutory duties now placed on universities following changes to the PREVENT programme as part of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015.
Farooq was a postgraduate student on Staffordshire's Terrorism, Crime and Global Security MA. Like all university students, Farooq was required to read a range of texts relevant to his studies. In his case, this included a text entitled, Terrorism Studies. Deciding to read the book in the library on campus, Farooq was approached by someone that he first thought was a fellow student. That individual went on to ask him questions about Islam, his attitudes to homosexuality, Islamic State and al-Qaida among others. To Farooq's surprise, the individual questioning him was a member of staff who proceeded to report him to security guards as the conversation had allegedly raised "too many red flags".
After being investigated for three months, Staffordshire University admitted fault and subsequently apologised to Farooq for the distress caused. The University did stress though that Farooq was never accused of being a terrorist and that only "concerns" had been raised. Noting that the member of staff "had only had a few hours' training in December 2013", the University added that guidance about the new duties "contains insufficient detail to provide clear practical direction". Ironic that the University's Masters programme Farooq was enrolled on includes a focus on "policy responses to terrorism and counter terrorism and their relationship with human rights".
Under the new statutory duties, universities will now be required to carry out risk assessments on students that are thought to be vulnerable to extremist ideologies while also providing them with appropriate welfare programmes. Universities will also be required to provide specialist counter-terror training for its staff. One can only speculate on how different it might be to the "few hours' training" the member of staff who questioned Farooq had.
Such measures come on the back of universities being deemed to be 'special authorities', institutions that are uniquely placed to try and prevent people from being drawn into violent extremism and terrorism. The rationale behind this is that university staff - those like myself - are uniquely placed to see 'changes' in the behaviour and outlook of those who have been radicalised.
This is extremely worrying for me because as I told the All Party Parliamentary University Group (APPUG) when invited to speak to them on the issue of radicalisation and extremism on campus earlier this year, while the 'tell-tale signs' of extremism and radicalisation are oft cited, I am yet to find a politician or indeed anyone else that can provide me with a definitive list of what they are.
It is far from surprising that PREVENT guidance does not either.
Consequently, the duties have a very real potential for being implemented in extremely naïve ways whereby if a student is seen to become 'more Muslim' so it is likely that someone is going to presume it is the result of them having been radicalised. Whether visual - growing a beard or wearing a hijab for example - or vocal - speaking about Islam or expressing political views about British foreign policy or Palestine for instance - I have little doubt that students who happen to fit this profile will increasingly find themselves being unfairly targeted.
Given the advocacy group Cage claim to have received around 100 similar reports to those of Farooq in the past year alone, it would appear that my fears are already much closer to being a reality than even I could have predicted.
But as I also told the APPUG, my real fear is that the impact of the duties will go even further whereby students who happen to merely 'look Muslim' will also be unfairly targeted.
And this is why we should be really concerned because the duties will mean that all Muslim students will increasingly feel as though they are being monitored and scrutinised. Feeling increasingly pressured and marginalised, the result will be that Muslim students will find it increasingly difficult to just be 'ordinary students'. And that is a message that will make those espousing extremist ideologies very happy indeed.Suggest a correction