On 21st September, a new statutory duty for universities to “have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism” came into force.
This gave institutions a legal requirement to put policies in place to challenge on-campus radicalisation and guarantee compliance with the government’s Prevent strategy.
While universities have broadly accepted the need to challenge extremism on their campuses, a number of concerns remain.
These include issues surrounding freedom of speech on-campus, the effectiveness of training given to staff, and student opposition to the strategy – which is too often influenced by extremist narratives.
To discuss these issues, Student Rights invited Professor Geoff Petts, Vice Chancellor of the University of Westminster; Steve Hall, Head of Strategic Engagement at the Higher Education Funding Council England (HEFCE); and Professor Jon Cole of the Tactical Decision Making Research Group to an event in Parliament yesterday.
Hosted by Advisory Board member Jim Fitzpatrick MP, Student Rights’ Director Rupert Sutton introduced the topic of extremism at UK universities and explained the new Prevent guidance.
He highlighted the problem of student opposition towards Prevent as one of the key factors undermining implementation, and described how a campaign within the National Union of Students (NUS) has encouraged students to boycott the strategy.
Professor Petts outlined the policies put in place at the University of Westminster to deal with extremism at the institution.
He emphasised his university’s commitment to freedom of speech and focused on the need to challenge extremist narratives rather than banning speakers.
Professor Petts then went on to explain the procedures that have been put in place to open up debate including the enforcement of balanced platforms.
Professor Jon Cole spoke next about the challenges faced when screening vulnerable people, emphasising how extremism exists amongst a cross-section of faiths and political beliefs.
He argued that non-compliance by front-line practitioners is the first problem faced by those who seek to prevent radicalisation, and also highlighted the issues arising when an individual is wrongly identified as a violent extremist.
However, Professor Cole also stressed the grave consequences of missing someone who does pose a risk, as this could result in an act of terror being carried out.
Lastly, Steve Hall talked about the framework developed by HEFCE to monitor the sector’s compliance with Prevent.
He explained how HEFCE’s role is not only to collect information on the level of extremist activity on campuses, but also to make judgements on whether universities’ policies are robust enough to deal with those at risk of radicalisation.
He also stressed that Prevent is designed to encourage debate and emphasised the safeguarding aspect of the Prevent strategy.
This nuanced debate highlighted the difficulties facing universities, which must balance a need to safeguard students and challenge extremist narratives on campus while protecting freedom of speech.
It convincingly detailed the need for Prevent within the sector, and addressed the pitfalls the strategy must overcome, without the scaremongering and misinformation which has characterised too many on-campus events about the issue.