Prevent in context
I am not an agent of the state. By this I mean that I do not work for the government. There is nothing wrong of course with working for the government. But I do not. I work for a University. British Universities are set up in a different way to others in the rest of Europe, which often are state bodies. So, for example, when Warwick signed up to the new Guild of European Research Intensive Universities, we were able to do so ourselves. Our partners at Uppsala in Sweden were not; in order to join, they need an act of parliament to be passed.
I start in this way because it is important in the context of the debate on Prevent which is quite rightly occupying the minds of many of my colleagues and students at Warwick and across the UK HE sector. As a Vice-Chancellor, indeed as the head of a major organisation, I'm not doing this through choice or desire and it is not because we are part of the government machinery. I need to ensure that Prevent is implemented because it is a statutory duty; it is the law.
Many are worried about Prevent in operation. At Warwick, we heard this at our staff Assembly, which overwhelmingly passed a resolution critical of Prevent. I have seen those concerns in meetings with students, at our Senate, and at our Council. The governing body of this University, in terms of its trustees, is the Council. At its last meeting, the Council confirmed that the University should “continue to take an approach of ‘appropriate’ compliance with the Prevent duty”, whilst ensuring this was implemented in a way that protected the values we hold strong at Warwick: non-discriminatory academic freedom -“noting that Council recognised the importance of these principles” [Unconfirmed minutes].
This is also something that I take an academic interest in. My last book, Securitising Islam, mapped the processes in society that have for some led to practices in which Islamic identity is seen purely through a security lens; and the discrimination and violence that has sometimes followed. So it may be that you don’t like government policy; but arguably more problematic is the way that identities are seen to be problematic in everyday life – in newspapers, film, in blogs and in social media. You can track the same ‘jokes’ which many might see as Islamophobic on a whole range of social media sites, which ostensibly are in completely different domains. Governments may lead in particular directions; but equally importantly is how we, as a society, act.
Our duty as a University is certainly to follow the law, but we must do so in an enlightened way.
No one, I think, doubts the seriousness of the threat of terrorism. Think about what has happened in Paris, in Brussels and just recently in Orlando. Still greater acts of violence happen on a daily basis in Syria, in Iraq and elsewhere in our world. Closer to home, we have just seen the horrific murder of Jo Cox whilst she was doing her duty as an MP – working with the people in her constituency she was elected to serve. Often the perpetrators claim that they are driven to these sorts of acts to demonstrate their faith, or their political beliefs. But an important act of resistance as a University is to deny them that claim unchallenged, and to refuse to pigeonhole people.
At Warwick, I alongside some key academic colleagues and the President-elect of the SU, need support from our community to help us work out how we respond to Prevent in practice as a University. We will shortly be appealing via our Insite and MyWarwick portals for staff and student volunteers to work with us. It is important, and sadly unavoidable work, for us all. I hope others in our sector join us.