This article first appeared in HE
By Rachel Hall
Most universities comply with counter-radicalisation regulations. However the rules may not be evidence-based.
Universities could update their IT policies and keep a closer watch on student unions, but are mostly complying with legislation intended to prevent extremism, according to the first monitoring report published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England on 18 January.
Some 80 per cent of English higher education institutions have put policies in place this year that comply with the Prevent duty, the report concluded. Just 15 per cent of the 321 providers monitored were asked to improve their policies. A further two providers were warned that they had failed to comply, but after one provided further evidence it was reassessed as needing improvement, and the other no longer falls under the funding council’s remit for reasons unrelated to Prevent.
The funding council has been instructed by the government to determine which universities have “robust and appropriate” policies and processes in place which respond to the Prevent duty statutory guidance, and that these are actively followed.
Institutions were considered to have satisfied this if they had put processes in place for sharing concerns about individuals who may be vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism; staff were undertaking Prevent training; and policies were in place to identify and manage the risks that external speakers could express extremist views.
According to the report, the providers whose policies required improvement were those which had made “slow progress” in updating policies to respond to the duty. In some cases, universities had “misunderstood” the intention of the duty, it says, while in others providers needed to “strengthen or formalise” policies.
The funding council will now enter its second year of monitoring, which will focus on whether institutions can demonstrate that those policies have been actively implemented and are working effectively through annual reports, Prevent reviews and investigation of serious Prevent-related incidents.
Most universities had “identified the risks pertinent to their own context” and developed “appropriate, tailored responses”, the report says. The majority of providers had put in place “strong policies” to assess and manage risks around speakers and events, had plans in place to train staff on how to recognise and respond to vulnerable individuals, as well as forming partnerships with student unions as well as other Prevent-related agencies and engaging senior management. All providers submitted risk assessments and action plans reflecting individual institutions’ circumstances.
The area where most had further work to do was around IT policies, which needed updating to consider the use of filters and managed access to security-sensitive materials for academic purposes.
However the report warns that where there were Prevent incidents, these typically occurred in relation to events organised by students’ unions at societies, and where there were insufficient risk assessments of external speakers and their materials presented. It asks that institutions ensure they have “robust oversight” of these areas, even where a speaker has been hosted previously.
Alison Scott-Baumann, professor of society and belief at the School of Oriental and African Studies, said: “This report demonstrates clearly that the funding council has done what it set out to do. Universities are now extremely well prepared to respond. However it is not clear what this is about: risk avoidance must be based on evidence of risk. Higher education risks opening itself to legal challenges by implementing a policy without an evidence base. Moreover the legal instruction to protect free speech is not being upheld because, in law, the university cannot fully mitigate risk of any speaker and will err on the side of caution, thereby depriving individuals of their right to free expression with democratic limits. A body of research is developing that demonstrates how counter terror strategies can be counter productive.”