Desecuritising Higher Education

Desecuritising Higher Education is a research project hosted at Birmingham City University and funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust under the Peace and Security stream.  The project seeks to investigate the Prevent Duty within UK Higher Education (UKHE) and establish how it has been enacted across the sector as well as to explore the attitudes and experiences of those impacted by it. 

Desecuritising Higher Education

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A Disproportionate Response


In 2015 the Counter Terrorism and Security Act came into law in the UK.  One consequence of this law coming into force was that a formal legal duty (the Prevent Duty) was placed upon public sector authorities, including UKHE providers, which decreed that these authorities must pay, ‘due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’.  The rationale behind the Duty is to extend the coverage of the UK’s counter‑terrorism strategy to better prevent individuals from being drawn into terrorism and to identify those at risk of involvement in such activities.  However, the Duty has subsequently been criticised on a number of fronts including within UKHE where critics have argued among other things that it approaches students primarily as risks and staff as risk managers.

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?

The 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 furtherance of these objectives and thus we hope our research can shed light upon how the Duty has been deployed and make Higher Education less about security and more about the pursuit of knowledge.

Project aims

  • 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.


The first phase is desk based and will consist of producing a structured survey of the Prevent Duty within UKHE.  The survey will involve identifying, collating and analysing Prevent guidance from UKHE providers as well as information pertaining to organisational structures, training, and referrals.  

The second phase will engage directly with stakeholders, including but not limited to university students and staff. This second phase will critically analyse the Duty in practice by drawing upon the experiences of those who have been co‑opted into it and use their insights inform a qualitative evaluation of the Duty.


We hope to begin publishing our initial findings over the next few months and these will be uploaded here. Below we have included other recent publications by the project team on this issue of counter-terrorism and education.

Whiting, A., Campbell, B. Awan, I. And Spiller, K. (2019) Mapping the Prevent Duty in Higher Education, available at:  

Awan, I., Spiller, K. and Whiting, A. (2019) Terrorism in the Classroom: Security, Surveillance and a Public Duty to Act. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Pivot,

Spiller, K. Awan, I. and Whiting, A. (2018) ‘‘What does a terrorist look like?’: University lecturers’ interpretations of their Prevent duties and tackling extremism in UK universities’, Critical Studies on Terrorism, 11(1), pp. 140-150,

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Desecuritising higher ed

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This project was funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Trust.