Students set to vote on renewing Prevent boycott, but university warned it faces 'increased risk' of being challenged over light-touch approach
London’s School of Oriental and African Studies is facing growing pressure to comply more actively with the Prevent duty even as the university’s student union is set to vote on continuing its boycott of the government’s controversial counter-terrorism strategy.
Sources within SOAS told Middle East Eye that the university had so far sought to balance widespread opposition to Prevent among students and staff with its legal obligations by adopting a light-touch approach to implementing the duty.
One former member of SOAS's board of trustees, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the university's approach to Prevent as an “unofficial policy of non-compliance”.
“In meetings they would say we are not complying with Prevent. But obviously that cannot be said [publicly] because legally they are required to comply,” the former board member told MEE.
But this was disputed by others involved in rallying opposition to Prevent at the university.
“It’s not accurate to say that SOAS isn’t complying or is supporting the student union,” said Sai Englert, of SOAS’s Preventing Prevent society.
“They’ve taken the approach not so much of not complying as finding the lowest common denominator on which they are able to legally comply. That doesn’t mean that Prevent is absent from campus. What it does mean is that there has been a very limited approach.
“They have tried to triangulate the official pressures they are under with the fact that there is huge pushback against it. But the position they have taken is becoming increasingly difficult to hold because the pressure from the state is really mounting.”
SOAS is considered a world-leading institution for the study of Middle Eastern affairs, and is home to research centres for both Palestinian and Israeli studies. It is also well known for the activism of both its students and lecturers and is regularly depicted as a hotbed of radicalism and “extremism” in right-wing newspapers, and has also faced - and denied - accusations of anti-Semitism.
The Prevent duty, which was introduced by the 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act (CTS), requires universities and other public sector bodies to have “due regard to the need to prevent individuals from being drawn into terrorism”.
SOAS students will vote on Tuesday evening on whether to extend their boycott of Prevent, which has been in place since 2015, for another three years.
A motion to be debated at a union general meeting would give student leaders a mandate to "continue to work with the school to lobby against Prevent [and] to not comply with CTS requirements as far as possible within the confines of the law".
— SOAS Students' Union (@soassu) February 15, 2018
“The Prevent duty is toxic as it alienates certain communities and discriminates based on students’ ethnicity, faith, nationality and/or culture. Black and Muslim students are subjected to racial profiling and state-sponsored Islamophobia, which has no place in our universities and colleges,” the motion says.
Dimitri Cautain, SOAS Student Union's co-president for welfare and campaigns, told MEE: "As a student body, we are well aware that a whole host of policies and surveillance politics are targeting students of colour, refugees, [and] Muslim students, undermining SOAS in its ability to be an educational institution for all its students.
"Because of this, the Students' Union has a clear boycott policy of the Prevent Duty and its implementation since the 2015 Counter Terrorism and Security Act and the students are now seeking to renew this mandate."
But SOAS’s management has acknowledged the university faces an “increased risk” of its position on Prevent being challenged because of “considerable external pressure” being brought to bear on it to comply with additional Prevent guidance issued by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), according to the minutes of a meeting of the university's executive board last September.
Valerie Amos said SOAS was “frequently being asked” why it had not made any Prevent referrals (AFP)
HEFCE is currently responsible for monitoring the implementation of the Prevent duty in universities and its guidance for institutions requires them to provide specific data about staff Prevent training, details about high-risk events held on campus, and information about student referral procedures.
However HEFCE also encourages university leaders to go beyond legal compliance.
"We are keen to ensure that alongside the formal processes to monitor providers’ ongoing due regard to the Prevent duty, we promote an environment of continuous improvement and support the development and sharing of ‘what works’ in the higher education sector," it says in another guidance document which it advises universities to follow in order to demonstrate "due regard" to the duty.
Sources at SOAS also told MEE there was further uncertainty about how the new Office for Students, which replaces HEFCE as the monitoring body for universities in April, would interpret and enforce compliance with the Prevent duty.
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Last month, SOAS director Valerie Amos told an inquiry by parliament's Joint Human Rights Committee (JHRC) into freedom of speech in universities that the university was “frequently being asked” why it had not referred any of its students into Channel, a Prevent-linked counter-radicalisation programme.
A spokesperson for SOAS subsequently told MEE that Amos had been alluding to an increase in freedom of information requests about Channel referrals, rather than citing any concerns that had been raised formally with the university.
Meanwhile SOAS’s student union has been threatened with regulatory action by the Charity Commission amid concerns raised by the regulator over its refusal to engage with Prevent - even though student unions do not have a legal obligation to implement the duty.
SOAS’s student union, like many other student bodies, is registered as a charity, which requires it to adhere to Charity Commission rules on political activity. It is already under scrutiny by the commission over events organised by the university's Friends of Palestine and Islamic societies.
In November, the commission wrote to student union trustees requesting a list of speakers and events organised in 2016 and 2017 by the two societies. It also asked what “alternative processes” had been put in place to “stop people becoming terrorists” because of the union’s “ideological” opposition to Prevent.
“If sufficient explanation and/or evidence is not provided, the commission may conclude that the trustees have not followed the advice and guidance previously provided and this may prompt regulatory action by the commission,” the letter said.
The letter is among evidence submitted to parliament's human rights committee for consideration as part of its inquiry into free speech in universities. SOAS student union members also told the inquiry they had been questioned by the Charity Commission five times in the past year, although a spokesperson for the Charity Commission told MEE that the union was not the subject of a statutory inquiry.
Michelle Russell, the Charity Commission's director of investigations, monitoring and enforcement, told the committee the commission had engaged with the student union because of "a variety of issues around noise in the newspapers, along with some complaints from members of the public".
MEE understands that the Charity Commission contacted the student union shortly after the Daily Mail published an article in January 2016 suggesting that SOAS was among universities which had given a platform to speakers from Muslim civil liberties campaign group Cage, including former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg, which has campaigned widely on campuses against Prevent.
"The revelations will also fuel growing concerns that universities are turning a blind eye to Islamic extremism," the Mail said.
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MEE also understands that SOAS's management was contacted by a local Prevent officer following an event organised by SOAS's Islamic Society in November which featured Begg and Muhammad Rabbani, also of CAGE, and former NUS president Malia Bouattia discussing Prevent and Schedule 7 airport stops.
Last September, a report by the Henry Jackson Society, a neo-conservative thinktank which is accused by critics of stoking Islamophobia, also named SOAS as the university which had hosted the most “extremist speakers” in the 2016-17 academic year.
Addressing allegations of anti-Semitism, Amos told the JHRC last month: "We as a university administration have had discussions with the Board of Deputies, the Union of Jewish Students and others because of our concerns about what has been reported in the press, but I certainly do not feel that those reports about SOAS being anti-Semitic are fair.
'Face-to-face Prevent reviews'
HEFCE's annual monitoring process requires universities to submit annual reports demonstrating their “continuing active and effective implementation of the Prevent duty”.
But MEE has learnt that SOAS has also faced additional scrutiny from HEFCE, which has the power to conduct “face-to-face Prevent reviews” at institutions about which it has particular concerns.
Evidence submitted by the Preventing Prevent society to parliament’s human rights committee said that the university’s board of trustees had been contacted by HEFCE in November 2017 “for details on steps SOAS was taking to implement the Prevent Duty on campus”.
According to the evidence, HEFCE raised questions about SOAS's external speakers policy, the reporting of ‘Prevent-related’ welfare concerns, and the activities of the student union.
The minutes of SOAS's executive board meeting in September 2017 also reveal management concerns about pressure being exerted on the university to adopt HEFCE guidance.
“The School’s approach was legally compliant but there was considerable external pressure to consider the HEFCE guidance as part of an Institution‘s legal responsibility. The School’s approach was supported by the Board of Trustees but, given the Government's continued focus on the counter-terrorism and radicalisation agenda there was an increased risk of the School‘s position being challenged,” the minutes said.
A SOAS spokesperson told MEE that the university’s contact with HEFCE was “part of the usual review process of Prevent in universities”.
The spokesperson also said in a written statement that the acknowledgment of “considerable external pressure” in the executive board minutes was “in reference to the external environment that has been created by a range of organisations expressing views on these matters (such as public speeches, media and lobbying groups)”.
SOAS leaders have acknowledged the school faces an “increased risk” of being challenged over Prevent (MEE)
“Our approach is primarily one of safeguarding the welfare our students and staff. We also ensure that the duty is balanced against our fundamental commitment to academic freedom and freedom of speech and debate. In implementing Prevent we of course seek to ensure that trust between all members of our community is maintained,” the spokesperson said.
Cautain, the SOAS Student Union co-president, said: "As made clear at the joint Parliament commission on human rights inquiry into freedom of speech at university: we do feel that government and institutions such as the Charities Commission and HEFCE have targeted the students' union, and students at SOAS, on the unfounded suspicion that the students' union is lax on combating violent extremism and its causes.
"We are very clear on this: we do not consider organised student activities and minority groups exercising their rights to freedom of expression and debate a cause of violent extremism. It seems that those in power do."
SOAS 'actively engaged' with SO15
Documents published by SOAS on its website, some of them in response to Freedom of Information requests, reveal how the university’s management has grappled with fulfilling its legal obligations in regard to Prevent in the face of opposition on campus.
Minutes of a board of trustees meeting in April 2016 note that “to date, Prevent had been approached lightly by the school”, and reveal that HEFCE had twice visited SOAS because of newspaper articles about radical speakers on university campuses.
In its initial Prevent submission to HEFCE, also dated April 2016 but attached as an appendix to minutes of the board of trustees meeting in July 2016, the university's then-registrar Laura Gibbs wrote: “SOAS takes its duty under the Prevent legislation very seriously.”
Gibbs added that a Prevent Working Group had been established, but noted that the student union had chosen not to participate.
“SOAS has always actively engaged with the local police and SO15 Counter Terrorism and coordinate and cooperate with them over any concerns raised about speakers or events at SOAS,” the letter also said.
A document dated 11 July 2016 and titled “Board of Trustees’ Role With Regard to the Prevent Duty” notes that HEFCE had “responded positively” to SOAS’s initial self-assessment but had concluded that further action was needed in relation to staff training and IT policy.
In April 2017, the board of trustees again discussed the university’s approach to Prevent with the chair of SOAS’s audit committee raising concerns that the university was putting itself at risk of becoming the subject of a HEFCE review.
"The school had established non-bureaucratic procedures that were based on the legislation and not on the supporting guidelines; the school therefore needed to be aware that it could be subject to a HEFCE review and needed to be able to evidence actions taken,” minutes of the meeting said.
A spokesperson for HEFCE told MEE it did not comment on individual institutions in relation to the Prevent duty.
But the spokesperson said: “We work with a wide range of higher education providers to support their compliance with the Prevent duty and we have dialogue with them for a variety of different reasons.
“At any one time there may be Prevent review meetings taking place with a number of institutions. Review meetings are not necessarily a negative or a positive indicator of compliance with the Prevent duty. They simply allow us to scrutinise the effectiveness of the provider’s approach to implementation as part of the wider assessment process.”
A Charity Committee spokesperson told MEE that the organisation was "continuing to consider the issues raised with SOAS Students’ Union" and maintained a regulatory interest in ensuring the charity complies with its requirements under charity law".
"Irrespective of the Prevent Duty, charities are required to discharge their legal duties and responsibilities to manage the risks from terrorism, extremism or other illegal conduct such as racial or religious hatred. It is trustees’ fulfilment of these charity law duties that our regulatory engagement with the charity is focused on."