The Prevent strategy (one part of the UK’s wider counter-terrorism strategy) underwent a significant transformation in 2015 when the Prevent Duty was introduced. This Duty made it a legal requirement for a range of public sector authorities such as schools, prisons and universities, ‘to have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’ (HM Government, 2015, p. 3).
Dr Andrew Whiting
Senior Lecturer in Security Studies and Desecuritsing Higher Education Project Lead
The arrival of this Duty provoked a variety of criticisms, in particular within the higher education sector, which have continued to the present day (NUSconnect, n.d; ElEnany, 2019). As covered in our previous blog, our research project aims to better understand how the Duty has been enacted within UK Higher Education (UKHE) and consider its impact within the sector as well as how it is being received by those who work and study here.
To help achieve our initial aim we have sought to map how the Prevent Duty looks within UKHE and consequently the first phase of our project involved the analysis of 157 Freedom of Information Requests (FOIs) sent to Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) across England, Wales and Scotland where the Duty is in effect. Each FOI request was identical and asked seven questions that can be separated into four broad areas: 1) organisational structure, 2) Prevent guidance, 3) Prevent training, and 4) referrals to Channel (a panel set up to consider those considered vulnerable). These FOIs have generated a significant amount of information across these four areas which we considered in our recently published initial findings report. You can read the full report here but below we outline some important takeaways that have emerged from our research so far.
Firstly, the FOI replies demonstrate the extent to which the Duty has become integrated into the operation of UKHE. From the creation of new structures and groups that oversee its delivery and management through to the production of new polices that ensure compliance, the Duty appears to have a wide coverage within UKHE. This coverage suggests that institutions may have listened primarily to the desire for a ‘risk based’ implementation rather than a ‘proportionate’ one (HM Government, 2015, p. 3). In addition to this we see evidence of how the Duty is ‘feeding down’ through institutions to Departments and individual members of staff in the form of training and guidance. With some of the concerns around the Duty in mind, establishing whether this new bureaucracy helps achieve the Duty’s objectives or, conversely, deters or prevents certain speakers coming on campus, makes discussing ‘controversial’ subject matter more difficult, or impedes research into topics deemed sensitive will be crucial to establishing its effect in the sector.
Secondly, there does appear to be some divergence in how the Duty has been rolled out across UKHE. From the scope of training offered and who is required to complete it, to the existence of standalone Prevent policies or the amendment of existing frameworks, the enactment of the Duty looks different across the sector. While organisational structures appeared broadly similar even here there was an apparent distinction between those that appeared to accentuate student wellbeing (and Prevent as an extension of existing safeguarding practices) and those that have a more straightforward compliance with the requirements of the Duty. Deeper questions remain around Prevent as safeguarding (Qurashi, 2017), however, the extent to which these different approaches - and indeed other examples of variance - offers anything substantively different in practice and upon the experience of those within the sector will be an important avenue for our future research.
Thirdly, some of the replies we received in particular around referrals and guidance indicate a degree of nervousness around transparency. Notwithstanding important ethical considerations around disclosure, 28 institutions in England and Wales refused to provide any information indicating whether there had been any referrals to Channel. Similarly, Prevent guidance was split between public facing and internal material – the latter of which was only accessible to staff via the institution’s intranet and on two occasions this was not made available to us. Other sources of information such as that provided by the Office for Students can help to develop a fuller picture of the Duty. However, the gaps in public knowledge that remain prevent a more robust evaluation and when taken alongside findings such as staff being stood down from particular roles for non-compliance and non-student referrals suggest that the operation of the Duty is likely more extensive than we have revealed here.
With these findings in mind our report raises questions about the proportionality of the Duty’s appearance within UKHE. The findings have revealed the pervasiveness of the Duty and the ways in which it has repositioned the responsibilities of institutions and staff into the domain of counterterrorism. The Duty has been absorbed into bureaucratic structures, staff training and professional development as well as impacting upon areas such as teaching, research and external speakers. We intend to conduct further analysis of this FOI data to shed more light on some of these initial findings and in the near future will be aiming to speak to staff and students in HEIs throughout England, Wales and Scotland to better understand the experiences of those affected by the Duty.
Ben Campbell is a Research Assistant on the Desecuritsing Higher Education Project.
Dr Andrew Whiting is a Senior Lecturer in Security Studies at BCU and leads the Desecuritsing Higher Education Project.
HM Government (2015) Prevent Duty guidance: for Higher Education Institutions in England and Wales. Accessed 7 June 2019.
Qurashi, F. (2017) ‘Just get on with it: Implementing the Prevent duty in higher education and the role of academic expertise’, Education, Citizenship and Social Justice, 12(3), pp. 197-212.
NUSConnect (n.d.) Preventing Prevent. Accessed 7 June 2019. Available at: https://www.nusconnect.org.uk/campaigns/preventing-prevent-we-are-students-not-suspects