“When you treat people like suspects they’ll become suspects.”

The Gryphon speaks to University Secretary, Roger Gair, to clarify the University’s position on the controversial Prevent Strategy.

Could you tell us what the University’s official stance on the Prevent Strategy is?

I think the first thing I want to say is that actually the Prevent duties have applied to universities for about a decade now. What’s different, and has been different since September of last year, is that the Prevent duty has statutory force for the first time. This means that the whole area of Prevent has gone from being discretionary, to something we are obliged to do. The most important point I want to make is that our whole approach is founded upon three judgments. These three judgments are, first of all, that in the UK people are more prone to being drawn into terrorism if they are alienated or marginalised from society and their local communities. The second judgement is that the greatest protection against students being drawn into terrorism is to ensure that as a community we celebrate diversity and difference, and that through our curriculum and our culture, we inculcate and celebrate the values of global citizenship and tolerance. The third judgement that we have made is that as a institution of learning, the most effective way of countering views which might drawn individuals towards terrorism is actually through open debate, dialogue and discussion. What they mean in practise is that while we will be rigorous in doing what the law requires, we are not going to be heavy handed, we want to avoid alienation in particular groups of students.

We want to avoid any sense of disenfranchising any individuals. We will remain as committed as ever to freedom of expression and to promoting free debate. We have a freedom of expression protocol which says that we even encourage protest. We won’t, as I have already indicated, be targeting particular groups of students. If we were to that would be counterproductive. We are not spying on students, and we are being open and consultative, we have been talking to staff groups, we have been talking to representatives of the Union, and having this interview is part of that commitment to debate.

You’re trying to get rid of the urban legend that you’ll be spying on students. An issue in particular that really worries students is that you’re obligated to monitor prayer rooms. Is this the case?

No. Unequivocally. As I have said we will not be spying on students and one of the urban myths relates to this notion of surveillance and actually the prevent duty to give it its due, and I do have problems with some of it’s language, but to give its due it says specifically that prevent programmes must not involve any covert activity.

Another concern for students is the relationship between students and tutors. Do you think it could undermine these relationships if students feel they need to be more watchful of what they say, especially as Prevent labels relevant mental health issues as cause for concerns. Could that stigmatise the mental health of students?

What we’re determined to do here is to guard against that risk by trying to look to foster promote develop the right kind of university culture. I think that’s a more productive way to try and prevent students being drawn into terrorism than any kind of surveillance. But yes, its a risk and as I’ve said we need to avoid being heavy handed. Let me just say that we will not be treating students with mental health issues any different today than we would a year ago. We have built up what is becoming quite a sophisticated supportive service to help students with all kinds of vulnerabilities and it would be ill-advised for us to do anything to undermine this.

You said that you think that the right to protest and the right to freedom of expression should be protected. However, just a few weeks ago we had the media reporting on how the University of Leeds was ‘not complying to PREVENT’. How do you make sure that you’re not pressured into cracking down more than you would like too?

What I would say is that first of all we have to have the courage of our convictions and, as I have already indicated, we do have some deep rooted values in our University. Values that most university students and staff would have no problems with, and we have and we have got to be, as University officers, firm with our adherence to those values.

We must have these values at the forefront of our mind at all times and be prepared to resist untoward pressure from government and the tabloid newspapers. We were mentioned in a recent Daily Mail article because a particular speaker has spoken to the Islamic Society here at Leeds, and elsewhere. We had done a proper risk assessment, we worked very closely with the students union, but on this particular occasion, we made a risk assessment and concluded there was no reason for us to prevent that particular speaker for speaking, and actually we would have made the same decision if the event was held yesterday. Universities seem to be being expected to shut down certain kinds of speakers and events, whilst being critcised for now allowing enough freedom of speech.

What do you make of the media’s recent accusations of Leeds as an enemy to free speech?

Spiked did this so-called index of free speech, however, I can find no serious basis of fact underlying that report. Okay, so the student union has made a perfectly legitimate decision not to sell particular things in the union shop, , however, that’s hardly banning free speech. Similarly, the University itself has been criticised for making it clear that we do not accept antisemisim. The law makes it clear that we shouldn’t permit racist propaganda and if i’m being criticised for being a member of that club then I take some pride in it just as I would do for not tolerating islamaphobia.

Last week the Prime Minister said universities are failing BME people, do you feel that he is right to lay the blame at the door of universities?

I dont think its appropriate to lay the blame at the door of the universities. It is appropriate for universities always to be asking themselves ‘Can we do more?’ then yes it is. I’m not up to date with all the stats but let me give you one to indicate the university’s genuine commitment to widening participation – the usual measure used in the sector is the participation rate of students from low socio-economic groups and we at Leeds have moved from just over 18% participation rate in 2011/12 to just under 23% last year. That’s quite a significant rise and it reflects the huge effort that we put into widening participation. Can we do more? Can we be better ? Of course we can. Theres always room for improvement but the important thing is that we are both committed to widening participation and challenging ourselves all the time.

Benjamin Cook

Image: Tammi Nowell

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