In September 2015, universities became subject to the legal duty to have due regard for the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism mandated by the Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) was tasked with regulating this duty, and institutions were required to submit policies outlining how they would meet their requirements.
Last week – eighteen months after this duty came into force – Student Rights invited Jessica Trahar, Head of Strategic Development at HEFCE, and Sam Slack, an HE/FE Prevent Coordinator at the Department for Education (DfE), to Parliament to discuss how universities had responded.
Kindly hosted by Advisory Board member Jim Fitzpatrick MP, Student Rights’ Director, Rupert Sutton, began the event by outlining the findings of our new report, ‘Mitigating the Risks? An Assessment of University Speaker Policies’.
He was followed by Jessica Trahar, who spoke about how higher education institutions were implementing their Prevent Duty strategies, pointing out that universities are autonomous institutions, so it is inevitable implementation will vary depending on local context.
Trahar’s assessment of provider compliance was that the vast majority of those subject to the duty have demonstrated successful engagement, and where issues have been found, action plans have been made to improve policies and procedures.
She maintained that only a tiny minority have not engaged, and that HEFCE has worked with the DfE and other sector representatives to help institutions meet their requirements.
Following this, Sam Slack discussed how regional Prevent co-ordinators from the DfE play a supportive role in helping higher education institutions comply with the Prevent duty.
Slack stressed that this role is primarily supportive and not meant to be regulatory, describing his purpose as enabling debate, not disrupting it, while ensuring institutions mitigate any associated risk.
He pointed out that subjects which attract controversial speakers are usually the most in need of protection, and highlighted the minimal amount of disruption Prevent causes – only applying to a small number of events.
He also addressed the support the DfE offers, including helping universities carry out and interpret open source checks, offering advice to student unions and universities, and delivering bespoke training to student societies to help them put on events.
The talks were followed by a robust Q&A which saw questions on the extent to which universities are actually implementing their policies, how to deal with the disruption of events, and views on the duty within the sector.
Hearing from those tasked with regulating and implementing the Prevent duty on the UK’s campuses highlighted the challenge facing the sector, but also suggested significant steps forward have occurred in challenging campus extremism.
It will now be important to monitor how the regulator oversees compliance now universities have put their policies in place.