The Prevent Duty: What Does It Mean For Universities?

Christine Abbott, University Secretary & Director of Operations at Birmingham City University considers the new Prevent duty and the implications for universities.

Few can be unaware of the Counter Terrorism and Security Act, which became law in March 2015. Part 5 of the Act addresses the risk of being drawn into terrorism, and places significant new obligations on public bodies and authorities, including universities. This is called the Prevent statutory duty.

While the duty took effect for the majority of bodies on 1 July 2015, at the time of writing the commencement date for Further and Higher Education is not yet known. It was expected to be 1 September 2015. However the commencement order has not yet been laid before Parliament, so this date is likely to slip.

There is much else which remains unclear. The guidance on external speakers and events on campus has just been published (in the revised prevent duty guidance, subject to parliamentary approval). However the draft monitoring framework is not yet available, and neither has HEFCE been formally confirmed as the monitoring authority for English Universities. Both of these are dependent upon the commencement order.

Meanwhile universities are busy preparing for the new duty, and speculating on the extent of its impact. Responses vary. Some see the new duty largely as an irritation, a side show, something that will distract us, academics and administrators alike, from the real business of learning, teaching and research. For others the new duty represents a serious threat to academic freedom and freedom of speech and challenges the core principle of the independence of universities from state interference and direction. Finding the sensible middle ground between these two views will be the real headache for senior administrators, who are most likely to be responsible for ensuring compliance.

There’s no doubt that implementing the duty in a proportionate way will be a challenge. Firstly, there is the practical argument. University students are, by and large, over 18 and therefore adults. Universities cannot realistically police the activities of the whole of its student body, often numbering over 20,000 in any one institution. Universities can, and do, take their duty of care towards their students very seriously and have a range of support mechanisms in place for students who are vulnerable, for a whole variety of reasons. However I do not know of any university which would claim it could “prevent” all its students from coming to harm, self inflicted or otherwise. The extensive use of social media by students compounds the difficulties of finding out about activities in which students may be involved, but which may be taking place away from the university campus, or in students’ private environments.

There are of course terms and conditions attached to students’ participation in tertiary education – Ts and Cs in which the Competition and Markets Authority is taking a keen interest. (In an idle moment, I did wonder whether including in our terms and conditions a stipulation that students should not do anything to “further an environment conducive to violent or non- violent extremism” would constitute an unfair contract term… But I digress).

As well as the real practical problems there is the ideological one, which goes to the heart of what Higher Education is about. At tertiary level, education means questioning received wisdom, challenging others’ ideas, and stretching the intellect. Most of us would, I think, recognise action or talk which incited violence. But where should the fine line be drawn between challenging the status quo and encouraging non-violent extremism? When do unconventional, even distasteful, views become extremist ones? The latest guidance does not help us much, here: it lays the responsibility firmly on institutions to determine what are the appropriate decisions to take, to ensure compliance.

Universities are diverse communities, culturally, socially, and ethnically. Mixing with people from different backgrounds who hold different ideas to one’s own is one of the delights of studying at university. As educators, most of us probably believe that this mix makes our students (and ourselves) more tolerant, and less extreme. And the creative friction between academic minds which espouse different theories or views is precisely what advances knowledge in our universities. Are these strengths now under threat?

My own response to that is no – at least, not yet. The new duty may well bring a further unwelcome, bureaucratic burden. But with good sense, and judgement, it can be implemented in a responsible and proportionate manner, and not damage the culture of university life. What we cannot know now is what might happen if just one university were to fail to respond appropriately, or if circumstances, nationally or internationally, were seriously to change. Then, it might be time for us all to follow Candide and go cultivate our gardens.