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Introducing the Desecuritising Higher Education Project at Birmingham City University

In 2015 the Government passed the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act into law, updating and enhancing the scope of UK Counter-Terrorism powers.

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By Andrew Whiting, Senior Lecturer in Security Studies and lead on the Desecuritsing Higher Education Project

One unprecedented aspect of this law was to create a legal duty for various public authorities to perform a counter-extremism function as part of their day-to-day work. This function is commonly referred to as the ‘Prevent Duty’ after one of the streams of the UK’s broader counter-terrorism strategy CONTEST. 

CONTEST consists of four streams: Prepare aims to mitigate the impact of a terrorist attack, Protect aims to strengthen protection against terrorist attacks and Pursue aims to stop terrorist attacks (Home Office, 2018).  The final stream, Prevent, is slightly different in that it largely operates in a pre-criminal space and aims to, ‘stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism’ (Home Office, 2018: 31).  Prevent has without doubt been the most controversial stream within the CONTEST strategy and over the course of its different iterations has been criticised for reasons that include, but are not limited to, encouraging surveillance on citizens, disproportionately targeting Muslims, and lacking evidence for its approach.

Following the broader objectives of Prevent, the rationale behind the Prevent Duty therefore is to extend the coverage of UK counter‑terrorism to better prevent individuals from being drawn into terrorism and to identify those at risk of involvement in such activities.  It places this legal duty on local authorities, the education sector (including schools, higher education, further education, nurseries and childcare providers), the health sector, prisons and the probation service and the police.  However, since coming into law the Duty has faced criticism on a number of fronts including within UK Higher Education (UKHE) where critics have argued that it approaches students primarily as risks and staff as risk managers (see: NUSconnect.org.uk). There is a risk, therefore, that in UKHE the Duty may prove counter-productive by damaging relations between staff and students, stigmatising particular groups and limiting discussions around certain subject matter. In light of the Duty’s objectives and the subsequent criticism it has received, it is important to understand how the Duty looks within UKHE and what it means in practice for those working in the sector.

Currently, however, very little is known about the specific ways in which UKHE providers have interpreted and implemented this duty.  It has now been over three years since the Duty came into effect, meaning we are at an appropriate and important juncture to undertake a critical evaluation of how it looks within UKHE, how it is being enacted and how it is being received.  Are the stated aims of safeguarding and violence reduction being realised or is the Duty undermining the ethos of UKHE as well as the fundamental rights and freedoms at its core?

Our project aims to address these questions by conducting a structured survey across UKHE of Prevent Duty enactment covering areas such as organisational structure, guidance, training and referrals.  Furthermore, by subsequently engaging with stakeholders such as students, staff and those tasked with dedicated Prevent roles, the study will capture qualitative insights into individuals’ first-hand experiences to produce a practice-based understandings of the Duty’s impact.  

With this in mind we aim to:

  • Undertake a critical analysis of Prevent duty policies and guidance across UKHE providers.
  • Explore the attitudes, values, beliefs and behaviours of those impacted by the duty within UKHE.
  • Evaluate the design, implementation and effects of the Prevent duty across UKHE.

Our motivation for this project comes from a shared belief that Higher Education is about expanding knowledge, promoting free speech, developing critical thought and speaking truth to power.  The extension of UK counter-terrorism into UKHE presents a clear potential tension in the furtherance of these objectives and thus we hope our research can shed light on how the Duty has been deployed and make Higher education less about security and more about the pursuit of knowledge.

Please keep an eye on our website and Twitter account for latest updates on the project!

References

Home Office (2018) Contest: The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/716907/140618_CCS207_CCS0218929798-1_CONTEST_3.0_WEB.pdf, accessed 20/02/2019.

NUS Connect (2019) Preventing Prevent, available at: https://www.nusconnect.org.uk/campaigns/preventing-prevent-we-are-students-not-suspects, accessed 20/02/2019.