The National Union of Students (NUS) has turned down government funds to improve relations between ethnic and religious groups on campus. This is due to funding this year coming from a government unit alarmingly named Preventing Violent Extremism in Further and Higher Education, as part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).
Shelly Asquith, the NUS vice-president was right when she asked, “why would this department fund such a project? What is it about students of faith that necessarily relates to ‘violent extremism’, unless we are following a common narrative that assumes all Muslim students are suspects before proving themselves otherwise?” In another disconcerting move, the BIS refused to confirm that the funding for the grant was not in fact associated with David Cameron’s Prevent Strategy which was set up in 2011 with the aim of tackling UK extremism.
The Prevent Strategy has been criticised as McCarthyist by some, as Cameron’s government has become increasingly convinced that to mitigate the risk of domestic terrorism, the state needs to challenge anyone who holds what is considered ‘extreme views’, not just those threatening violence. The problem is, who decides what is ‘extreme’? This is a direct threat to individual rights and freedom of speech, a human right Cameron himself has stressed the importance of following the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
“The problem is, who decides what is ‘extreme’? This is a direct threat to individual rights and freedom of speech”
The big question now is can the NUS afford to turn down the cash? While their act of protest puts out a strong message, is it as effective as the funding would been in supporting the Campus Cohesion, Faith and Belief project they already run? The NUS has already described the project as vitally important for students’ unions to understand how to engage students of faith, build partnerships, and tackle issues such as hate crime and intolerance. On the other hand, funding coming from a unit named ‘Preventing Violent Extremism in Further and Higher Education’ clearly shows that the Government believes in a direct link between extremism and minority groups. This belief and the Government’s heavy handed approach could only fuel resentment and create the very divides this funding is supposed to dissolve in categorising anyone different as a potential extremist.
Having a different view does not make you extreme; it simply means you have a different opinion. Since early October the Prevent Strategy has legally bound schools, colleges and universities to monitor and report on students they deem may be at risk of becoming violent extremists. This includes monitoring students who appear ‘withdrawn’ or those who seek ‘political change’. This could effectively mean anyone having a hard time or expressing an opinion. With the focus on preventing what the government sees as Islamic extremism, the prospect of racial profiling and state-sponsored Islamophobia is a terrible thing to see. Black and Muslim students are bearing the brunt of this racist and reactionary agenda while freedom of speech across the board is threatened. The NUS is right to reject funding associated with repression and discrimination, and it should continue to stand uncompromisingly against the Prevent Strategy. The NUS is right to place the individual rights of the students it supports and defends above gaining extra funding. I should hope that placing morals over money will continue to take precedence and the NUS will continue campaigning to prevent the Prevent Strategy.