UCU members will not spy on Islamic students

October 20, 2006

Staff are being asked to alert the police to 'extremists' but Paul Mackney refuses to participate in the politics of paranoia

Sometimes you wake up to the Today programme and have to pinch yourself because it seems as though you're stuck in a nightmare.

Labour ministers have been queuing up to parade their political virility on questions of race and Islam - all in the name of democracy.

John Reid, the Home Secretary, started it off by enjoining Muslim parents to shop their children to the police. It's understandable that such a statement comes from him. After all, if there's "something of the night"

about Michael Howard, there's something of the dawn raid about Reid.

Then Jack Straw, undoubtedly the best Home Secretary in terms of race relations, pitched in with the suggestion that Muslim women remove their full-face veils at his surgery.

Next Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, voiced his support for Imperial College London's ban on students wearing the veil and suggested that it be extended to cover lecturers. Gordon Brown explained that this helped "integration".

Now the Department for Education and Skills is preparing draft advice to universities and colleges on recognising Islamist extremists and alerting Special Branch to their presence.

The University and College Union is concerned that members may be sucked into anti-Muslim McCarthyism, with serious consequences for academic freedom and civil liberties.

The state cannot expect academics to monitor what Muslims say in seminars or download in libraries. Indeed, they could be subject to disciplinary action for discrimination.

Furthermore, DfES proposals to vet student societies suggest that Islamic separatism, inflamed by inspirational leaders, leads to "radicalisation" in a supposedly unstoppable sequence that ends in terrorism.

Radicalisation is not caused by cultural segregation. The Muslim community is at the bottom of the UK social pile, and you don't have to be the head of the British Army to know that foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan exacerbates frustrations.

But for Tony Blair such an explanation is unthinkable. So the search for a cause ends up casting blame on Islam itself.

The distinction between radicalisation and terrorism is blurred in a way that could prove counterproductive. Radicalism is not terrorism, and identifying the former gives no one the right to contact Special Branch.

Paradoxically, those bastions of social and religious segregation - public schools and faith foundations - receive support from a Government not short of public school ministers with extreme religious views.

Much education is still delivered by nuns in wimples and forehead bands.

There are no cries for them to disrobe - certainly not from any member of Opus Dei.

At a time when there is widespread consensus on the need to rebuild trust in society, it's particularly unjust for a government department to put a whole section of British society under suspicion because of its faith or culture.

We are concerned at the threat to academic freedom posed by the proposals in the DfES draft document. Our members will not be police informers.

Otherwise, they would rightly lose the confidence of their students. UCU members have a pivotal role in building trust - these proposals, if implemented, would make that all but impossible.

Higher education should not take place behind a wall of divisiveness and paranoia. Approaching 50 per cent of young people will soon be in higher education and potentially subject to new techniques of surveillance.

A senior DfES source has been reported as saying that the proposals are being pushed by people who have their own agenda and, while there needs to be vigilance when it comes to terrorism, this isn't the way forward.

Universities UK has expressed deep reservations about the DfES approach, and the National Union of Students has condemned it. The UCU looks forward to working with both organisations and others, including the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, to uphold academic freedom and student rights.

A more sensible approach would involve educational institutions taking seriously their obligations to carry out race impact assessments under Straw's Race Relations Amendment Act.

This would mean universities connecting with minority communities and breaking down segregation by lending an ear to the voices of the unheard.

It does not mean spying on students.

Paul Mackney is joint general secretary of the University and College Union.

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