On 16th June, OUSU’s Board of Trustees (composed of the sabbatical officers, four external trustees, and three student trustees) passed by consensus an action plan to comply with Section 26 of the government’s Counter-Terrorism and Security Act. This section, part of the government’s controversial PREVENT strategy, places a duty on bodies such as universities (listed in the act as “specified authorities”) to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.” PREVENT defines extremism as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy [and] the rule of law.”
Despite some opposition, OUSU has resolved to implement the contents of a document which specifies several key areas where students “at risk” of radicalisation might be identified. One key area cited in the document is “Pastoral care and student welfare”; the manager of the Student Advice Services (OUSU’s free and confidential advice, information and advocacy service) has now been trained by the Thames Valley Police to comply with PREVENT strategy and identify students who hold what the government defines as “extremist” views”. This training will also be delivered to all Advice Service staff and OUSU’s Sabbatical Officers over the long vac. Ultimately, OUSU’s strategy resolves to make its staff and officers “comfortable sharing concerns about radicalisation and extremism”, including referring students who are receiving pastoral support to the government’s Channel program, which assesses students deemed “at risk” and decides what intervention, if any, is needed.
Another potential site of “radicalisation” on campus identified in the document was “Events”. The action plan resolves to review and update the University’s free speech policy in line with PREVENT, and to develop a new “external speaker policy which acknowledges and navigates the full legislative framework” of the Bill by Michaelmas 2015. These shifts in policy appear to indicate that the University and OUSU will have greater control over the invitation of guests and external speaker events, as the government’s official duty guidance on PREVENT states that “radicalisation on campus can be facilitated through events held for extremist speakers.”
Marc Shi, Chair of OUSU’s Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality, commented, “The language of ‘radicalism’ and ‘extremism’ has been used by a growing number of governments and institutions to disproportionately police and target people of colour. That the University of Oxford and OUSU has taken up this language and activities through the adoption of the Prevent policy, and furthermore has done so with no consultation of the OUSU BME Officer or the Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality is deplorable, and further evidence for the lack of regard the University has for the experiences and perspectives of its students of colour. CRAE stands against the adoption and implementation of this policy, and urges all those who support the inclusion and representation of marginalized voices, particularly voices of people of colour, to do the same’.
The implementation of PREVENT strategy in UK Universities has drawn criticism from a number of student organizations. At this year’s Conference, the National Union of Students passed Motion 517, proposed by the NUS’ Black Students Committee, which resolved “to encourage Unions and institutions to not comply with or legitimize PREVENT and to develop guidelines for Unions on effective non-cooperation with the Act and its proposals.” Motions condemning PREVENT’s Higher Education policy have also been passed by Student Unions at UCL, LSE, Manchester, SOAS, Queen Mary’s and Cardiff. The legislation has also been condemned by a number of prominent UK academics, including the signatories of an open letter published in The Guardian.
Alasdair Lennon, VP Welfare & Equal Opportunities, and Emily Silcock, VP Charities and Community, commented, “In order to adhere to our legal obligations as trustees of the Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) and those obligations created by the ‘Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015’ we have had to implement the ‘Prevent Plan’. Politically, [we] disagree with this piece of legislation and a motion will be brought to the first OUSU Council of Michaelmas to condemn it.”
A spokesperson from the University told Cherwell, “New duties imposed by the 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act are yet to come into force for universities. The University is awaiting the Government’s accompanying guidance to Act and the date for its implementation. Once these are received, the University will consider its detailed approach and the implications for existing policies.”
The Home Office declined to comment.