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Counter-extremism, Prevent and implications for universities

Jo Attwooll

Jo Attwooll

Chief of Staff
Universities UK
person holding sheet of paper

The Queen’s Speech today included details of further legislation to “prevent radicalisation, tackle extremism and promote community integration” via a Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill.

Details are scarce at this stage, but we understand it will include measures to introduce a new ‘civil order regime’ to restrict extremist activity.

This will no doubt prompt debate about the government’s broader strategy to prevent terrorism. And, as far as the higher education sector is concerned, it will provoke further analysis on how universities can balance their obligations to secure free speech within the law and prevent individuals from being drawn into terrorism. These are not new issues.

Prevent duty

Yesterday, Universities UK hosted an event in London to support universities in complying with the Prevent statutory duty (which took effect in September 2015). This duty requires universities and other public bodies such as schools, prisons and the health service to have due regard to the need to prevent individuals from being drawn into terrorism.

The conference, attended by 100 representatives from dozens of UK universities, from heads of student services to registrars and university security staff, offered an excellent indication of the extent to which the higher education sector is taking the Prevent statutory duty seriously.

Delegates heard from a range of speakers including government officials, vice-chancellors, university staff who are heavily involved with implementing their institution’s response to the duty, as well as student union representatives.

A number of prominent themes emerged on the day. Firstly, universities should be viewed as part of the solution, not the problem. Universities play a fundamental role in producing graduates who are tolerant, critical thinkers who make a positive contribution to civic society. They are also playing a vital research role in progressing understanding of global terrorism and what factors lead to individuals being drawn into terrorism.

Complying with the duty

Secondly, it is abundantly clear that, although the Prevent agenda remains a challenging and controversial topic for universities, institutions are making considerable efforts to comply with the new Prevent statutory duty. In January, 100% of funded higher education providers returned their initial self-assessments to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) (the monitoring body for the Prevent duty in England) and 100% submitted more detailed material in April. The assessment process shows clear evidence of the positive effort that institutions have made to comply with the new duty.

Another important topic covered during the conference was overcoming the leadership challenges posed by the Prevent agenda and, in particular, engaging with the academic and student communities which remain concerned about the impact of the new duty.

Balancing act

Many universities described how they have engaged with their students and academics to address their concerns and seek their constructive input on how to comply with the duty, without compromising the core values of universities or alienating specific groups of students. In an increasingly febrile environment, this is likely to remain an ongoing challenge.

Nonetheless, the sector remains committed to ensuring that universities remain tolerant and welcoming spaces where difficult, controversial and sometimes offensive ideas can be expressed, debated and challenged.

A number of universities emphasised that much of the activity required by the new duty are things that universities have been doing for many years. The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 has simply enshrined this in law. As before, there remains a commitment for universities to feel safe at all times – this remains unchanged.

This will remain an important strand of Universities UK’s work, not only in influencing government to take a proportionate approach through existing and proposed legislation, but in supporting institutions to manage their responsibilities effectively through initiatives such as the Safe Campus Communities website.

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