Is the government's anti-extremism strategy targeting college Christian Unions?

Is the government's anti-terrorism programme being used to clamp down on ordinary Christianity as well as radical Islamism in Britain's colleges? The much-criticised 'Prevent' strategy, first introduced in 2011 and updated in March 2015, has certainly given rise to that fear. It requires teachers to rat out students they think might be leaning toward radical ideas so they can be deprogrammed.

It (rightly) doesn't specifically target Islamists as that would be to stigmatise a particular religion, though obviously that's what it's aimed at. But many argue that it's ineffective or counter-productive. The NUT called for it to be scrapped at its conference in March; in April a UN special rapporteur said it could actually "end up promoting extremism".

But there have been fears since its inception that it was an instrument far too blunt for its purpose, and that it could be used – whether maliciously or not – against entirely innocent religious people, including Christians. One area in which radicalisation is feared, and in which Prevent operates, is Further and Higher Education. Responses to a consultation on the guidelines – originally quite draconian, envisaging outside speakers at religious events submitted drafts of their talks in advance – were published at the end of 2014. One paragraph says a "very significant number" of respondents were worried about its impact on the expression of religious belief. It said: "Many of these respondents did not have sufficient confidence in front line staff to be knowledgeable or well trained enough to apply the duty in a manner that did not undermine their right to religious expression."

Now even after Prevent has been tweaked to make it less intrusive, there is at least anecdotal evidence to show that these fears were justified.

A Sunday Times article cites the case of an unnamed Further Education college where a Christian Union was barred from holding prayer and Bible study meetings as a result of the Prevent strategy.

Christians at another college have been told they can no longer use the premises and they have to meet at a nearby coffee shop.

Without further details – and no one is saying where the colleges are – it's impossible to be too definite about what has happened. But Toni Coulton, director of Festive, a charity that supports Christians in the UK's further education and sixth-form colleges, told Christian Today that while such cases were rare, it wasn't the first time she'd heard of it happening. Coulton puts it down to a number of factors, including publicity about the dangers of radicalisation and worries about what Ofsted might say if it inspects on-campus religious bodies. She suggests it all adds up to a "health and safety" culture, in which activities that look perfectly reasonable are banned on the grounds that somehow, if everything went wrong that could possibly go wrong, someone somewhere might just get hurt.

She does say that this is an approach that's rare, and that generally FE colleges have a "balanced" approach. But, she adds, "you do get these instances – and there are colleges that say you can't set up a Christian group because there isn't a Muslim one, and you get secularists saying, 'We don't do God here.'"

Is there a widespread anti-Christian or anti-religious feeling in the UK's colleges and universities? No.
Many of them – and certainly all universities – have chaplaincies that are more or less embedded in their structures. In the case under consideration, a spokeswoman for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, which runs Prevent, told Christian Today the guidelines were designed to protect freedom of speech and that any action taken under it should be "proportionate" to the supposed risk. As the college in question is not known, she couldn't comment on that, but it's pretty clear that if it did cite Prevent to justify its actions it was simply wrong (and should be challenged). 

But stories like this echo others where the problem is not so much hostility to religion as simple ignorance. Another is the case highlighted in Parliament today of Christian converts who are asked to prove their faith by answering questions about the date of Pentecost and the colour of Bibles; only people who haven't a clue about religion would think those were reasonable things to ask. In the case of these FE colleges, the same sort of thing is probably going on. They don't understand religion. They don't speak its language and consequently they're afraid of making mistakes, so they think the best thing to do is exclude it altogether. If there's no religion at all, no one can complain, surely?

The problem is not just that this privileges the secularist position over every other, though it does; it is a very long way from being a level playing field. It also means that a rich, vibrant part of human life and experience is denied a place at the table within the institution. It might only be a prayer meeting, but a college is poorer without it, whether it acknowledges it or not.

The Prevent strategy has many critics. In this case it's probably being used as a convenient tool rather than a real justification for freezing out religion. But until our society reaches a place where it can be comfortable about faith, this sort of thing will keep on happening.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods