Monthly Archives: March 2016

The Prevent Duty@Bristol: The Duty in Context, Bristol UCU Response and Next Steps

The Context: 

The Prevent Duty is Section 26 of the 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act. This states that public bodies, such as universities, need to have ‘due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’. According to the Government’s Prevent Duty Guidance for Higher Education Institutions in England and Wales, this means universities need to police external speakers with a view to stopping events where ‘extremist views’ may be expressed, to train staff in ‘factors that make people support terrorist ideologies’ and to make ‘clear’ to student unions ‘the need to challenge extremist ideologies’.

The Prevent Duty is part of the Prevent Strategy, published by the Government in 2011 and part of the overall UK counter-terrorism strategy. According to the Strategy, universities are now legally responsible for monitoring possible signs of radicalisation. Indicators for this ‘radicalisation’ are nebulous, open to abuse and highly specious. They include ‘a need for identity, meaning and belonging’, ‘a desire for political or moral change’ and ‘vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values’.

Dissent as regards Prevent amongst Higher Education professionals is rife. Ken MacDonald, warden of Wadham College, Oxford and a former Director of Public Prosecutions, has pointed out the ‘chilling effect’ of the Duty on academic debate and day-to-day business. ‘Read literary,’ he argues, the Duty ‘envisages a future in which people might be constrained from arguing, in a university of all places, that democracy is wrong in principle‘. Vice Chancellor of Kingston University Julius Weinberg has recently said ‘there is no respectable evidence that radicalisation is happening at our universities‘. Sorana Vieru, NUS VP Higher Education points out ‘an atmosphere of suspicion, monitoring and not to mention profiling undermines the possibility of such a space that allows research to flourish and learners to develop‘. ‘The creation of a legal duty on universities,’ highlights Rizwaan Sabir, lecturer in criminology at Liverpool John Moores University, ‘to report extremists or “potential terrorists” therefore has a deeply damaging impact in so far as it creates a climate of fear and self-censorship‘.

Clearly, one of the most worrying aspects of the whole Prevent project is the green light it gives to racial and religious discrimination. ‘For Muslim students’, according to Malia Bouattia, NUS Black Students’ Officer, ‘there truly will be no respite from the storm of Islamophobia that greets them in every other section of society‘. In an effort to promote ‘British’ values from the top, the current Conservative government is granting powers to institutions that ensures precisely the kind of victimisation that engenders social exclusion. To quote University of Bristol academic Dr Therese O’Toole:

The current direction of travel for Prevent and the government’s increasing emphasis on and development of a battery of powers to combat extremism exemplify the tensions inherent in Cameron’s concept of ‘muscular liberalism’, where defence of ‘British values’ – democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and belief – is being realised by ever expanding and restrictive measures (e.g. Theresa May’s surveillance bill), that target and marginalise Muslims. So far, these are being developed in a policy climate of acceptance of the government’s construction of the problem of extremism, with little consideration of their implications for either Muslim civic inclusion or civil society more broadly.

The website PREVENTwatch documents cases of Prevent in practice: 

UCU Policy & University of Bristol

National UCU policy is clear: the Duty seriously threatens academic freedom, is intended to stifle campus activism, forces University staff to racially profile, legitimises Islamophobia, and jeopardises the safety and supportive learning environment that is the classroom or lecture theatre.

As regards the Prevent Duty at the University of Bristol, members may be aware of the recent Prevent Consultation. Please see the Bristol UCU blog post, ‘The Prevent Duty at the University of Bristol‘.

Bristol UCU also helped organised the Prevent 101 event last October, and is a co-organiser of the NUS event Students not Suspects on 17th March at the University of Bristol.

To be clear, the University position is that per its legal obligation, it needs to demonstrate to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), the HE Prevent Duty monitoring body, its compliance with the Duty.

The University has set out its Prevent Risk Assessment and Action plan accordingly. In the Consultation, for example, staff and students were asked to comment on the draft Freedom of Speech statement and the new External Speakers Procedure. A new IT policy is on the cards; staff will be subject to varying forms of Prevent Duty training.

It should be noted that the HEFCE monitoring procedure is essentially an audit. Respondent universities are not mandated to enforce certain policy changes; rather, they are asked to respond with a view to detailing their Prevent Duty-readiness. The University of Bristol is able, if it so wishes as an institution, to say it is Prevent reading on the basis of extant polices on vulnerable students, room booking and civil liberties safeguards.

The Prevent Compliance Group, with UCU representation as of 1st March, has been leading on this. In terms of the University of Bristol timetable, the final suite of Prevent-related policies and procedures have to be submitted by 1st April to HEFCE. They are due to be approved at the Board of Trustees on 18th March.

Overall, Consultation comments were telling. Bristol staff and students wrote of ‘the slippery slope’ that the Prevent-related changes heralded, the ‘vagueness’ of the terms of the Freedom of Speech policy and the ‘Orwellian measures’ of the External Speakers Procedure. One respondent observes:

My concern is that what is, in principle, regards as a contingent tool for a extraordinary situation will, de facto, become a repressive mechanism and, indeed, a successful attempt to prevent students from uniting and and taking part to protest for their legitimate grievances.

Another respondent flags up:

The UCU and the Bristol SU are seeming the only sensible people involved in this response…The university should be fighting back against this nonsense, not rolling over to have it’s tummy tickled by the most illiberal government since…well, since the terribly illiberal Labour government.

It should be noted that suggestions from the Prevent Consultation feedback will be incorporated in the final documents –the document owners for the Freedom of Speech and External Speakers Procedure are happy to include reference to the right to hold events on controversial topics; further clarity around the need to protect free speech will be added –and it was also noted at the meeting of the Prevent Compliance Group how ‘unique’ Bristol has been in terms of consultative approach. Moreover, in terms of IT policy, we will not be going down the aggressive web filtering approach.

However, as Bristol UCU lead on Prevent, and UCU rep on the Prevent Compliance Group, for me, the main Prevent Duty concerns remain. With regard to the External Speakers Procedure:

Defenders of the [External Speakers] 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?

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?

Next Steps

The next meeting of the Prevent Compliance Group will meet in June. The Board of Trustees will approve (or not) the above mentioned policies on 18th March.

As part of Bristol UCU’s ongoing Prevent Duty campaign, an open letter has been drafted to go to Board of Trustee members in advance of their meeting on the 18th:

Please do sign.