Counter-Terrorism, Radicalisation, and the University: Debating the Prevent Strategy

On Friday 15 January 2016, the Global Justice Academy and the Centre for Security Research at The University of Edinburgh hosted a panel discussion on the Prevent Strategy obligations that have been placed on higher education institutions. GJA Student Ambassador, Rebecca Smyth, went along to the debate and outlines the debated arguments as well as her thoughts on this contentious issue in this guest post.

A thing of nothing or something more sinister?  Under section 26 of the 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act universities must “have due regard to the need to prevent people being drawn into terrorism.”  The origins of this ‘Prevent’ duty, and its potential implications for staff and students, were considered at a panel discussion organised by the Global Justice Academy and Centre for Security Research last Friday.  Chaired by Akwugo Emejulu, the panel comprised Gavin Douglas, Deputy Secretary of Student Experience here at the University of Edinburgh; Richard Jones of the School of Law; Genevieve Lennon of the University of Strathclyde Law School; Urte Macikene, EUSA Vice President of Services; and Andrew Neal of the Politics and International Relations department.

Providing some background, Dr Emejulu highlighted that this duty is not particularly new, featuring as it did in the 2011 CONTEST counter-terrorism strategy.  It is nevertheless proving controversial, with accusations that the government is requiring university staff to surveil students, that it poses the risk of promoting racism and Islamophobia, that it could stifle dissent and academic freedom, and that its conceptualisation of extremism is broad to the point of being meaningless.  Extremism is defined (to use the term generously) as ‘vocal and active opposition to fundamental British values,’ leading me to fear that my inability to understand the appeal of scones and clotted cream may put me on a government watch list.

Gavin Douglas detailed how the University of Edinburgh has gone about complying with the Prevent duty.  Five main but minor changes have been implemented:

  1. The University policy on speakers and events has been updated to ensure that freedom of speech is protected and that the University complies with all statutory obligations.
  2. The procedures for the use of prayer and multi-faith facilities simply codifies what has already been in existence for a long time.
  3. Senior staff with student-facing responsibilities will receive training and discuss Prevent further at training in a couple of weeks’ time.
  4. Students and staff undertaking research into potentially sensitive matters acknowledge the potential risk of doing so as part of their research ethics proposals. They can also make use of separate, secure storage for materials that might, when sitting on your personal laptop, be open to misinterpretation.  This has been standard practice for a long time in many areas, such as research into child abuse.
  5. A report on any interventions and referrals made in relation to Prevent will be made available on an annual basis.

Feeling reassured if still not delighted, the floor was then taken by Urte Macikene, who was unequivocal in stating EUSA’s opposition to Prevent.  EUSA considers Prevent to be based on a flawed model of understanding that holds extremist ideology to be the cause of terrorism.   Moreover, it legitimises racist and Islamophobic profiling, suppresses dissent, and undermines the autonomous position of universities and their role in challenging the status quo.  Commending the university for its light touch approach, Macikene nonetheless  contended that Edinburgh and the other Scottish universities represent the exception and not the rule in this regard.

Andrew Neal took a different view. While sharing Macikene’s concerns about counter-terrorism law and policy in general, he stressed that the statutory protections of freedom of speech and academic freedom were reaffirmed by this legislation and continue to be protected by it.  This, rather than its potential abuse as a spying and profiling tool, is what should be considered most important.

Genevieve Lennon considered the ways in which Prevent changes little: it has long been a criminal offence to invite any speaker who will incite others to commit criminal offences, and it has been illegal since 2000 to invite a member of a proscribed organisation or anyone who would advocate for such an organisation.  Health and safety legislation also imposes restrictions on inviting controversial speakers.  However, the vagueness of Prevent’s wording is problematic.  The use of ‘extremism’ rather than ‘terrorism’ broadens the scope of the policy, as does the lack of clarity regarding what ‘vulnerable’ might mean in terms of monitoring ‘vulnerable people’ for tell-tale signs of extremism.

Richard Jones provided some interesting critiques of Prevent and broader UK security issues.  He questioned whether there is any evidence that UK higher education is experiencing a significant problem with radicalisation, with Prevent therefore aiming to solve a problem that does not exist.  He also highlighted an important issue inherent in surveillance.  Those charged with implementing surveillance policy usually have the dual role of liaising with the group or individual in question while also monitoring them.  Attempts to build trust while performing the former function are undermined by the mutual suspicion engendered by the latter.  This is what happened in many instances where police trying to liaise with/surveil marginalised communities, and could happen between staff and students within universities.  Furthermore, its ability to detect extremism is limited given that individuals will more than likely simply decide not express any controversial views that might draw attention upon themselves while at university.  There is also the risk of a chilling effect, with individuals and groups deciding it is easier not to invite controversial speakers or discuss controversial issues.

Wrapping up, the general sense from the panel seemed to be that in many ways the policy and debate surrounding it are a storm in a teacup, although the risk of a chilling effect and self-censorship is a real one.  For Andrew Neal, the correct response to the policy is to keep thinking, learning, challenging and arguing, and to not let unfounded fear of the policy translate into disengagement and self-censorship.

Although I do agree, I am concerned that this is easier said than done for students from minority backgrounds and students at other universities.  I am also angered that groups dealing with enough discrimination already could be singled out for more.  The University of Edinburgh and other Scottish third-level institutions have taken a calm and nuanced approach to a policy that epitomises the dangers of translating political rhetoric into legally binding obligations.  I can only hope other universities are able and choose to follow suit.


On 20 January 2016, BBC News reported that a ten year-old Muslim boy from Lancashire found himself the subject of a police interrogation after a spelling mistake at school led him to write that he lived in a ‘terrorist house’.

If you are a matriculated student at the University of Edinburgh and are keen to get involved, click here to find out more about being a GJA Student Ambassador.