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You gave me a mandate, I stuck to it

Wednesday 21-10-2015 - 16:24

A clarification on external funding, conference policy and NUS Campus Cohesion, Faith and Belief Project.

At National Conference in April, you passed policy in response to the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act and its duties. This is the legislation that makes schemes like Prevent a legal requirement for institutions.

Others in the sector - including lecturers and teachers trade unions - have taken a similar stance. The policy you passed had clear resolves, and included the following mandate:

'To investigate, identify and block/cease accepting any Prevent funding for any NUS activities or departments.'

This summer, we were presented with an offer of funding from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to carry out work on ‘campus cohesion’.

This government money would fund the continuation of work that NUS had previously delivered called Campus Cohesion, Faith and Belief. It comprises various projects that have been incredibly important for students’ unions in understanding how to engage students of faith, building partnerships, and tackling issues such as hate crime and fascism. This is work we desperately wanted to continue, so long as we could ensure it was funded in line with policy you have passed.

When the offer came through, I was alarmed that the department in question was named ‘Preventing Violent Extremism in Further and Higher Education’, Department for Business, Education and Skills.

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?

Our policy was to ‘investigate’, and so, as vice president for welfare, I requested the department assure me that:

'The funding channel for the grant is in no way associated with the Prevent strategy, and is an entirely separate mandate and budget.'

'The work that NUS will deliver in exchange for the grant is in no way - as far as BIS is concerned - promoting or applying any element of the Prevent duty.'

Unfortunately, they refused to confirm this.

This was not money to ‘tackle Prevent’, it was money from Prevent and I could not be satisfactorily assured otherwise.

I want to make it clear: the premise of this project was never intended to supplement the Prevent duty, nor has it in the past. But this was what the government had in mind for it, in my view. This would not only have undermined our opposing position to the legislation, but violated our own National Conference policy too.

This is not the end of our work on Faith and Belief, and NUS continues to have a positive relationship with our friends who represent students of faith nationally. We are looking at other funding options for the future of the project as a whole, and in the very least the meetings that bring together student faith organisations will continue, as well as the political support for students’ union officers. Our online resources remain accessible, and I will also be co-ordinating a campaign for improved prayer facilities on campus, as promised in my manifesto.

It is to be expected that NUS’ positions will change as government policy changes. The implications of the Prevent duty becoming a legal requirement led to you taking a tougher stance that attempts to de-legitimise the monitoring and racial profiling of students on their campuses. Constructive engagement can be interpreted in many ways. With funding, your interpretation at National Conference was to constructively engage with the government by saying, “no thank you” to any money, and to continue campaigning. We have since written to the universities minister Jo Johnson, outlining our concerns, referenced them in the media, and we have launched the exciting new #StudentsNotSuspects campaign.

When it comes to Prevent, I think it's fair to say that most of the student movement agrees it is not fit for purpose and needs reviewing, but that the tactics used for demanding that will differ. How you interpret policy and deal with Prevent locally in your students’ union is not up to me. How I deal with Prevent nationally in NUS is not up to me, either: it is up to you. You gave me a clear mandate, and I stuck to it.

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