The university’s Prevent chief has said the legislation uses language that “pretty much any rightfully thinking person would find offensive”Louis Ashworth

Several academics have spoken out against Cambridge’s compliance with the government’s controversial Prevent legislation, warning that that it could lead to the university “sleepwalking into inequality and racial profiling”.

A discussion about the University of Cambridge’s implementation of the anti-radicalisation scheme was held at Senate House on Tuesday, following a request by a number of university professors and post-doc candidates

It was well-attended, with 11 speakers overall – ranging in seniority from College Master to undergraduate student. There appeared to be a consensus that the Prevent legislation poses a problem to the University, rather than an effective means of tackling “non-violent extremism”, with multiple cases laid out against it.

The motion for the discussion, which asked specifically that it be “open to students and to all employees of the University and Colleges... in addition to those already entitled to attend”, proposed the subject “That the Regent House, as the governing body of the University, consider the impact of existing measures taken in view of the Prevent regulations, as well as anticipated and possible other measures; their likely effectiveness; their compatibility with academic freedom and human rights; and the appropriate governance of these measures."

Surabhi Ranganathan, a fellow of King’s College and Lecturer at the Faculty of Law, described the Prevent legislation as both “extraordinarily intrusive and extraordinarily vague”, citing its scope to regulate not just actions, but thoughts, and stating that “thought crime is not crime”.  She explained that Prevent legislation does not describe “an aim to be achieved, means to be used, or standards by which we will be judged” as legislation usually does; Prevent merely states a “duty”, and leaves actual measures largely to individual institutions’ discretion.

Ranganathan further argued that the danger of Prevent is its “co-option of members of the University” into surveillance and suspicion of our own students and colleagues, particularly those who are Muslim.

This was a point echoed by Pembroke Politics and History research fellow Waseem Yaqoob, speaking in his official capacity as Research Staff Representative of Cambridge University and College Union, the academic staff union. He expressed fears that Prevent would “breed mistrust between educators” and encourage members of the university “to be suspicious of one another”.

Yaqoob highlighted issues with the “risk factors” for radicalisation given by government advice, which include topics such as substance abuse, family tension, peer pressure, bullying, domestic violence, and migration. He pointed out not only that the vast majority of incidences of these “risk factors” are nothing to do with radicalisation, but that suspicion on the basis of these could prevent people, particularly Muslims, from seeking help for fear that they might be reported.

Mezna Qato, a fellow of Middle Eastern History at King’s College, argued that this lack of specificity within the Prevent duty was “in intent and spirit, if not openly in the letter, making the University complicit in singling out one minority” and “cultivating racism in the community”.

Referring to the marginalisation that Black and Minority Ethnic students experience within the university, she warned that the university would be “sleepwalking into inequality and racial profiling” when it “should do nothing to encourage these things” in an environment that is already often perceived as unwelcoming.

This was backed by evidence that 90 per cent of those referred to anti-radicalisation programs are Muslims — who make up less than five per cent of the population — and the disproportionate reporting of Muslims when there is no evidential basis.

First-year King’s undergraduate historian Abdulla Zaman provided a number of anecdotes from his involvement with the Islamic Society, referring to one incident in which he was forced to cancel an event on the topic of ‘Islam in Europe’, after the speaker was labelled as an extremist in the Daily Telegraph. He regarded the cancellation decision to be based on a common slander against Muslim public figures, and attributed it to the rise of Islamophobia. “Prevent affects almost exclusively Muslim students,” he stated. “Anything we do can be seen through the prism of security.”

The final speaker, Graduate Union President Chad Allen, said that Prevent is “insidious” and “counterproductive”, and that although the legislation itself may not last until the next general election, it would be “utterly disastrous” if the University internalised its values. He closed with an appeal to the University to listen to students’ concerns — the “most engaged, informed, critical voices are found among the student body.”

The discussion followed a meeting last Wednesday, in which CUSU hosted representatives from several societies, JCRs and MCRs, and allowed them to pose their questions about Prevent implementation directly to the university.

Present at the meeting were Dr Kirsty Allen, Head of the Registrary’s Office, who is in charge of implementing the guidance; and Dr Matthew Russell, Head of Office of Intercollegiate Services, whose responsibility is to ensure that colleges implement the guidance correctly.

The attendees, who numbered just under 20, included representatives from a number of different colleges, as well as two members of the Christian Union. The only representative of a liberation campaign  present was Women’s Officer Charlie Chorley.

Dr Allen emphasised that the university was legally bound to implement the legislation, despite many staff members’ opposition to it on political grounds. She said that the Prevent guidance contained language that “pretty much any rightfully thinking person would find offensive”, adding that the Home Office “has a view, probably fuelled by the Daily Mail, that students aren’t taking this seriously”.

She said that Cambridge would be establishing a freedom of speech policy, and ruled out the possibility that the legislation would have any effect upon speakers and events. She reassured those in attendance that the university would not be changing its approach to IT filtering by monitoring the web traffic of students.

Allen also spoke about the advantages of a freer system, saying that an “open, challenging environment”, in which diverse reviews are welcomed and respected, could be “a fantastic guard against terrorism”.

She said that she expected the legislation would be utilised “very, very, very rarely”, and emphasised that there would not be any attempt by university governance to influence which speakers are allowed at student union events. “I will not be telling CUSU and the GU what to do in this space,” she said, in reference to the building the two student unions share at 17 Mill Lane.

During the discussion, concerns were raised over disproportionate levels of student representation in different colleges. Peterhouse JCR president, Frances Hawker, noted that her college does not currently have any students sitting on committees overseeing Prevent implementation.

Allen and Russell both noted the number of issues they have faced in reconciling the legislation with existing college policies: Allen said that it they had “unearthed so many areas of bad practice” with regards to practices such as room-booking whilst analysing current procedures within the university and colleges.

A University spokesman said: “The University is required by law to comply with the Prevent duty, and various arrangements to manage and implement this are currently being put in place.

“These arrangements will be proportionate and risk-based. They are likely to draw heavily on existing policies and procedures. Where revision is required, it will be light touch, focusing on raising awareness and helping individuals to assess risks and seek further advice within the University if they have any concerns.

“The University takes seriously its core values of ‘freedom of thought and expression’ and ‘freedom from discrimination’. Cambridge is a vibrant community where diversity of opinion, as well as diversity in our staff and student body, are vital to our mission and success.

“Discussions are an important part of the University’s democratic system of governance, providing a forum in which individual members can comment freely on certain business or topics of concern. Views expressed are usually those of individuals.”