Changes are afoot as Bristol reshapes its policies in response to its duty to ‘prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’. Among others, new policies include Freedom of Speech and External Speakers policies. The changes as proposed have a troubling authoritarian potential as well as introducing a new level of bureaucracy.
The University of Oxford, as one of the UK’s more venerable institutions, is hardly known for its heterodoxy. But recently as regards the Prevent Duty, Oxford has certainly been sending out what can politely be described as anti-government signals.
Ken MacDonald, former Director of Public Prosecutions in England and Wales and current warden of Wadham College, Oxford, has said the Duty ‘[r]ead literally …envisages a future in which people might be constrained from arguing in a university of all places, that democracy is wrong in principle‘.
In effect since September 2015, the Prevent Duty – part of the government’s Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 – calls on universities to monitor students for any signs of “radicalisation”. Universities should ensure that they “challenge extremist ideas”. Extremism is defined by “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”
For MacDonald, speaking to The Guardian:
“One is forced to contemplate a level of uncertainty that plainly risks a chilling effect on intellectual discourse and exchange, not to mention a deadening impact upon research into difficult contemporary questions,” he said.
Macdonald – a barrister, whose role as director of public prosecutions between 2003 and 2008 made him one of the most senior legal figures in England and Wales – said under the government’s guidance “the list of unacceptable topics might plausibly include much philosophical discourse, any Marxist analysis of a supposed class basis for our rule of law, and many atheist deconstructions of religion”
How goes the Duty at the University of Bristol?
As a University we are currently in the initial assessment phase. This concludes 1st April. By this point, the University will supply the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), the relevant monitoring body for the Duty, with a risk assessment, action plan, new/revised policies and procedures, and a narrative explaining the University’s approach, thus demonstrating how they are fulfilling their Prevent edit.
As one might expect, the University is bending over backwards to be compliant. Hardly surprising one might say. Prevent is the law of the land, and the University of Bristol is not going to engage in an isolated act of anarchic exceptionalism.
Yet, the University does have the capacity to define its response to Prevent. Its Prevent Action Plan is the result of a self-audit. In theory, it could robustly reply to HEFCE that its arrangement are in order; that as a responsible HE organisation, it is more that capable of not facilitating criminal enterprises; that rather than tacitly enabling of the profiling of staff and students of a Muslim appearance or providing the means to stifle free and open discourse within it, the University of Bristol sees its role as a guarantor of University members’ right to ‘adjust truths and facts; form them into one whole, or notice the obstacles which occur in doing so‘
To highlight one area due for new policy, the University is due to bring into force a new External Speakers Policy and Procedure.
The policy is intended to be “a systems solution”. In it, “events should be booked and notification of external speakers at least two weeks ahead”. Event organisers must assess whether any invited external speaker, alongside other well-established principles of common sense legal and institutional obligations, “have a controversial profile in the media’ or ‘is the event likely to attract a heightened media interest”. If there is any doubt, the organiser must go to a designated Assessor – an appropriate line manager figure – who if they are unsure, too, will pass the decision onto the Decision Maker, the Deputy Registrar.
As one Bristol academic notes, “[t]he process as written seems to make it impossible for an academic department to invite someone to give a talk at short notice. For example, we discover that Professor X is visiting Oxford from Harvard next week and we’d like her to drop by and give a talk in Bristol. Professor X easily generates a “No” on the self-assessment, but the two-week requirement means that we can’t invite her: an unnecessary bureaucratic obstacle to academic and intellectual exchange.” As for “[t]he undefined “controversial profile” test”…Does this mean we might refuse to let, say, Germaine Greer or Russell Brand speak, just because we don’t want the adverse publicity?”
Defenders of the policy may point to the self-policing aspect of the guidelines, and the dangers of reading worst case scenarios into the various instructions. After all, the various Bristol gatekeepers and decision makers for the External Speakers Policy (and most policies for that matter) are mostly good, solid liberal Bürger, who are not looking over their (right) shoulder wondering what the Daily Mail is fulminating about today. Moreover, when Bristol academics are organising conferences or pow-wows on high temperature superconductors or the social history of Counter-Reformation Italian millinery, are these really going to trigger “potential issues” for the Event Organiser and Assessor?
Yet, following on from Macdonald’s above ‘level of uncertainty’ point, the way in which every event is now under the Prevent eye, generates a degree of doubt in the mind of everyone when it comes to exercising free speech and going about one’s politically-tinged business on campus.
The External Speakers Policy risks giving managers the rather unaccountable right to determine what constitutes controversy. In Bristol’s case, the idea that we are a hotbed of Islamic or far right terrorism, or of the ideology that allegedly gives it comfort, may seem far fetched. But can we be sure that when we as institution are tested – an event devoted to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, populated by broadly speaking pro-Palestinian academic activists that generates the ire of the Mail, the Israeli ambassador and local, even campus groups and societies – that we won’t take the easy option and use our soon to be institutionalised tools to say no?
As way of a reminder, Bristol UCU stands fully behind the national UCU position: