This article is more than 1 year old

Are university campuses breeding grounds for extremism?

The government's review of Prevent is finally out - and universities and SUs come in for criticism. Jim Dickinson asks if it's justified.
This article is more than 1 year old

Between August 2016 and July 2017, just 24 cases from higher education providers were referred to “Channel”, the government’s programme that provides “support” at an early stage to people who were identified as being vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism.

It’s a number that the Office for Students (OfS) – which is the body (in England) charged with ensuring that universities comply with the “Prevent” counter terrorism duty – says is “broadly consistent” with the previous years’ statistics.

One reading could be that the figure demonstrates that university campuses are not the hotbeds of extremism that some fear they are.

But that’s not the view of William Shawcross – the author of the government’s long awaited (and internally delayed) independent review of Prevent – who thinks it’s a sign of provider and regulatory failure.

For Shawcross, it is because staff and students hold negative perceptions of Prevent – with many regarding it as divisive, unfairly stigmatising of Muslims and counter-productive – that results in what he calls the “strikingly low” number of Prevent referrals from the sector.

And the intimation is therefore that the sector is failing to safeguard students, and failing to prevent extremism.

Universities, students’ unions, groups of staff and students and the Office for Students (OfS) itself all come in for criticism here – with sector specific recommendations and a government response to boot. But is the criticism well founded?

Name and shame

During the passage of the Counter Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019, the government committed to carrying out an independent review of Prevent.

Originally, the name in the frame to lead the process was Lord Carlile QC – a former Liberal Democrat MP – who was also the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation from 2001 until 2011. But a few months into the process he was “stood down” following a legal challenge, with allegations of a strong “pro-Prevent” bias from groups like Rights Watch UK.

Be careful what you wish for, and all that – because later emerging in his place was one William Shawcross – a former chair of the Charity Commission, who as well as facing similar criticisms to Carlile, spent the early part of the last decade singling out universities and their SUs over “not doing enough” to prevent radicalisation.

A long, rebooted process then ensued – with a crucial input coming from Policy Exchange, which used a report last April to argue that university campuses had been a “key arena” in which anti-Prevent activism had been particularly vocal, with both NUS and FOSIS (the Federation of Islamic Student Societies) coming in for particular criticism.

Numerous leaks to the press suggest that Shawcross completed the report as far back as last summer – but government chaos and an internal row concerning the extent to which individual community groups and individuals should be “named and shamed” delaying publication for a long time.

We don’t know what the original Shawcross version looked like, nor the extent to which he took the Policy Exchange evidence at face value – but it certainly looks like it has influenced the report, with a specific section on universities and (organised) staff and students.

Students as suspects

First up, he notes that the 2011 Prevent review concluded that there was “unambiguous evidence” to indicate that extremist organisations were targeting universities and colleges for the purpose of radicalisation and recruitment. Full disclosure here – I worked at NUS in the late 2000s and was involved in discussions both the Home Office and the Department for Education – and it really did look like that was the case, often through “front” groups organising via student societies at the time.

Free speech expert Evan Smith covered some of the background to that activity and concern on the site while ago, and in this piece I included a retelling of the Christmas Day when it became clear that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called “Underwear Bomber”, had been president of UCL’s Student Islamic Society – with a resultant panic swirling around universities and SUs for some time.

Shawcross notes that in the 2011 review, three cohorts of students had gone on to commit terrorism offences – a) those who were committed to terrorism before they began their university courses, b) those who were radicalised while they studied at university, and c) those who were attracted to and influenced by extremist ideology while at university and then engaged in terrorism-related activity after they had left – and it was really the latter two that then led to the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 placing specific duties on universities to engage in Prevent work.

The problem here is that to the extent to which there was actual evidence on higher education as “breeding ground” at the time, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that it has remained as such. In fact Shawcross uses a rhetorical device – “I did not see any evidence to suggest that these dangers have diminished” – and says that a 2017 study demonstrated that over a quarter (26 per cent) of those who committed “Islamism-related offences” in the UK had some form of higher education, which is an extraordinarily weak bit of insinuated causation from correlation.

He then backs that up with “several high-profile cases of recent terrorist attacks” perpetrated by students or former students in Britain – but can only name Mohammed Emwazi, a University of Westminster student who graduated in 2009, and the Manchester Arena bomber Salman Abedi, who was at the University of Salford but dropped out in 2017. “The University of Salford”, he says, “drew particular criticism from the press as its SU had fervently campaigned to abolish Prevent” – insinuating some kind of link between its campaign and what happened next.

Training was offered

The case (shakily) made, Shawcross then gets into the weeds of how the duty plays out on campus. He spots that training in pursuit of the 2015 duty, for example, says that “relevant members of staff” are expected to have an understanding of the factors that make people support terrorist ideologies or engage in terrorist-related activity – noting that “relevant staff” is open to interpretation.

DfE, he says, suggested it should be for individual universities to create a training plan to identify key and relevant staff groups and appropriate training for different staff cohorts. Universities UK told him that Prevent training was primarily provided to administrative staff. His view is that any staff with student-facing responsibilities, including lecturers, should be trained – as well as those authorising on-campus events.

Later, noting that higher education providers are less likely to identify a radicalisation concern Shawcross suggests that that may be because some staff hold negative perceptions of Prevent, “such as that it is divisive, unfairly stigmatises Muslims and is counter-productive”, which then leads to “difficulties” about sharing radicalisation concerns.

We then get “testimony” from an academic suggesting that the duty was “not being implemented at all effectively” because Prevent training “is directly opposed by the academic union, UCU” and a suggestion that “private/charitable companies have advertised Prevent or Safeguarding training to educational institutions without accreditation”.

Crucially – and going into much less specific detail than the Policy Exchange submission – he also suggests that “Islamist preachers” have been invited onto campus platforms without challenge, with uncertainty as to whether staff are aware of such events, or have the training and resources required to conduct due diligence.

And then to top that off, OfS is criticised for relying principally upon annual reports from providers to demonstrate compliance:

It would be my strong recommendation that the regulation of the statutory duty within HE places greater weight on independent monitoring and evaluation.

Never ending stories

But arguably the most stinging criticism is reserved for “anti-Prevent narratives” that Shawcross says “dominate the discourse” about Prevent in British universities. Tapping into the monoculture/chilling effect slipstream, he says “a number of academics” who support Prevent feel unable to express their genuine views.

He also says several submissions raised concern at the extent of disinformation spread at universities, and expresses concern that “widespread and uncontested” disinformation fuels fears that the government is targeting minority groups, particularly Muslims; causes self-censorship amongst minority groups, particularly Muslims; and causes apprehension about making referrals about an individual at risk. It’s the universities and SUs fault, all that – not the duty itself.

As a result of all that – and partly because in another section he notes that research has found that some Muslim students feel they must self-censor their discussions and alter their behaviours to avoid becoming the object of suspicion due to what he judges to be “largely false” perceptions around Prevent – the key recommendation is specific measures to counter the “anti-Prevent campaign at universities”.

Higher and further education co-ordinators, he says, should work closely with institutional safeguarding leads to co-ordinate activities for students and staff which directly take-on and challenge disinformation about Prevent, and the Department for Education (DfE) is told to “develop a network of speakers” who are able to speak to students and staff about counter-radicalisation work and its benefits.

Interestingly, while Shawcross barely mentions NUS in his report, as well as accepting the recommendations in full, the DfE response singles out the national union for particular criticism – noting that in the past (circa 2017) it provided a platform for others to “spread misinformation” on Prevent as part of its “Students not Suspects” campaign.

It has also managed to find a current NUS policy statement on “Ending Securitisation, surveillance and Prevent” which it says inaccurately claims that referrals to the programme are based on “gut instinct” and “harmful stereotypes” and a stifling of free speech. “This fails to take into account how the Prevent Duty is risk-led, supported by training and guidance, and must be implemented in a proportionate way in accordance with other responsibilities”, says the response, adding that “such misrepresentations of Prevent risks deterring effective engagement with the programme by those in the sector.”

So what will happen next? It’s not clear whether or how OfS (or its funding council equivalents around the nations) will switch up monitoring – and of course if it does wade into the thorny question of whether academic staff should be compelled to comply with training or related Prevent duties, will be wading into a hornet’s nest that many a registrar will have been hoping might be left alone.

In any event, whether that kind of training will then result in what Shawcross clearly believes ought to be more referrals into Channel remains to be seen – there’s plenty of academic, professional services and SU staff that have perfunctorily completed the Prevent training and thought little of it since.

Whose side are you on?

In reality, four major problems remain here. The first is the problem that manifested clearly over the 2009 Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab case – insofar as the press, the public, regulators and politicians have a tendency to assume that there is more contact between students and universities/SUs than there actually is – and that in that contact it is possible, let alone desirable, to spot signs of radicalisation.

The second is the lack of evidence that higher education is a problem. That’s not to say that we should automatically ignore something if HE isn’t directly causing it – but just framing suspicion as “safeguarding concerns” doesn’t sufficiently deal with the downsides and unintended consequences of singling out Muslim students in this way – which if unnecessary should surely be avoided given the harm(s).

The third is, and always has been, the fine line between debate and freedom of speech, and this duty. Politicians wave away the conflict as if it’s an easy balance to strike – but remember (here buried in the small print) that Prevent has been successfully challenged in the courts on the basis that its application stifles freedom of speech:

Salman Butt brought a judicial review against the Home Secretary in 2018, claiming that the Prevent guidance for universities went too far in advising institutions not to allow events to go ahead where the risk of radicalisation could not be eliminated. Paragraph 11 of the Higher Education Prevent duty guidance was deemed unlawful as it was concluded the Home Secretary, when promulgating the guidance, had failed to comply with her duty under the Counter Terrorism and Security Act to have “particular regard” to ensure freedom of speech.

The government has just spent the best part of two years threatening HE in general and SUs specifically and directly over a failure to let people debate controversial matters on campus – but here continues to require universities and SU to restrict the speech of a particular group of speakers on often quite shaky ground.

If one of the reasons that the Shawcross review is lighter on naming individuals and groups than it could have been is legal threat, why is it right to require SUs and universities to restrict speech to the same sorts of folks without legal back up?

We’re back, as usual, to the “here’s a speaker your ISOC has invited, does the law require you to a) ban them, b) discourage them, c) tolerate them, c) encourage them or e) beg them to speak”, with no direct advice on which letter to pick.

But the fourth is the controversy over the agenda itself. I don’t know the extent to which Shawcross is right when he says that propaganda and untruths surround some of the campaigning against the duty. But I do know that students and staff – especially those that feel targeted and marginalised at the best of times – have passionate views about the programme and the way it has been executed.

To dismiss those concerns, and to not consider the way in which those concerns might be debated (rather than merely “countered”) is one thing. To insinuate that those that hold or are sympathetic to those concerns are somehow advancing the cause of terrorism is quite the unhelpful another.

2 responses to “Are university campuses breeding grounds for extremism?

  1. This is a mine field many seek to avoid, with the hard right islamists playing the middle class lefty types for fools be it by Taqiyya, Kitman or Tawriya. Several Muslim colleagues will not attend Friday prayers at the dedicated prayer room on campus, with all the facilities to perform Wudu etc, as the hardliners have made it clear they must be willing to be complicit in the discussions and edicts from the visiting hardline clerics they bring in, often from London. Some pray in small private spaces, often disabled toilets, which causes other problems, many walk several miles to one the town’s less hardline Mosques, even though they get a hard time for not being complicit with the on campus hardline Academics and students.

  2. Of course this is a serious and complicated issue in its own right. It also shines a light on the problems created for the sector by a wider lack of appreciation of the changed nature of higher education. For those outside the sector, even those closely linked to it such as regulators and government departments, as the article says there is a lack of understanding about the nature and extent of the contact between a student and university/SU staff. Government produced Prevent training for HE stresses the importance of ‘noticing’, but assumes a level and type of contact that reflects schools and (to some extent) colleges – and which doesn’t reflect the modern reality of a university. It’s crucial for Prevent, but also for much wider issues (e.g. personal tutoring, duty of care etc.) and reflects the impact of the post-2010 reforms. Until there’s greater awareness and acceptance of the sector as it is as a result of those reforms, rather than how government thinks it is, there are a lot of issues where we’re going to make limited (if any) progress.

Leave a Reply