‘Safeguarding Against Extremism in Higher Education’: Conference Review

Last week, Public Policy Exchange held a conference on extremism at the Strand Palace Hotel. The conference, entitled ‘Safeguarding Against Extremism in Higher Education: Preventing Hate and Protecting Freedoms’, featured distinguished speakers from a variety of fields, including law, academia, and the civil service. It gave an invaluable insight into the current legislation surrounding extremism as well as the debates surrounding Prevent.

The chair of the day’s proceedings, Ian Cram, Professor of Comparative Constitutional Law at the University of Leeds, opened his introduction by noting the impact of the recent High Court caseinvolving Salman Butt’s legal challenge to Prevent, which we have written about previously.

There were some strong arguments in favour of Prevent.

Max Hill QC, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, emphasised the importance of treating non-violent extremism and terrorism as separate issues. He believed this core issue has led to public misunderstanding of Prevent, which deals with the former rather than the latter.

Hill acknowledged that Prevent has contributed to grievances and led to accusations of a “chilling effect” on free speech, but remarked that there is little evidence to suggest this is taking place. He concluded that if there is strong evidence to suggest that individuals’ free speech is being curtailed, then there could in fact be a renewed legal challenge or a full review of Prevent.

Sam Slack, a Further and Higher Education Prevent Lead, argued that Prevent does not represent a “seismic shift” from what universities have already been expected to do for a number of years. He asserted that where elements of the policy are new, they do not threaten freedom of speech, with a high threshold imposed only for extremist speakers who might draw individuals into terrorism.

Slack said that Prevent only demands that reasonable mitigation of risk takes place, such as challenging speakers “with opposing views as part of that same event, rather than in a separate forum”. Far from censoring different points of view, he argued that this ensures “healthy” debate and tests views that are being expressed. In the Q&A, he also affirmed the necessity of the crossover between academia and student welfare, especially where the former leads to interaction with vulnerable students.

However, there were some voices that were highly critical.

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods MP, Chair of the All-Parliamentary Group on Universities, mentioned the lack of “definitional clarity” surrounding ‘extremism’ and ‘radicalisation’, which have not been differentiated from each other with “sufficient precision”. She argued that Prevent treats categories so broadly that it threatens the expression of radical and innovative ideas within higher education.

Tariq Ramadan, Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at the University of Oxford, repeatedly stated that government counter-extremism objectives were unsubstantiated by facts and figures. He also stressed that the government should be less discriminating about the type of Muslims they want to engage with, and should treat Muslims as “equal citizens” rather than as “suspected citizens”.

Ayo Olatunji, a BME students’ officer at University College London Union, accused Prevent of being a racist and Islamophobic policy. He noted it has ‘centralising’ and ‘anti-subversive’ tendencies, conflates radical student activism with extremism, and suppresses student rights. He claimed it conspires to turn staff into “nodes of surveillance” as well as “enforcers for the government”.

Olatunji lamented the fact that students’ concerns have been “ignored”, and argued that the policy has an excessive focus on “so-called” Islamic extremism rather than the threat of the Far-Right. Later in the Q&A session, Olatunji claimed his views represent a consensus of opinion within the NUS and the wider student movement.

Student Rights disagrees with Olatunji’s inaccurate claims surrounding Prevent, many of which we have addressed in a previous report entitled ‘Preventing Prevent? Challenges to Counter-Radicalisaton Policy On Campus’ (2015).

It was pleasing to see that one of Olatunji’s supposed examples of Prevent abuse – the shredding of Qur’ans at a University of Westminster prayer room – was challenged by a member of the audience, who introduced themselves as a regional Prevent co-ordinator. They observed that the incident had nothing to do with Prevent, and was the result of a management decision by university staff who were clearing out the room.

Overall, the conference accurately represented the diversity of views towards Prevent that exist across various sectors of British higher education. There were encouraging contributions that emphasised the necessity of the policy as well as its key successes.

However, the number of critical voices reminds us that there still remains important work to be performed in relation to the communications and public relations side of the policy. Definitional clarity towards extremism remains an outstanding concern among many Prevent practitioners. It is absolutely vital that these perceptions and misunderstandings are robustly addressed.

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