In 2015, a new statutory duty was placed upon universities across the UK: to remain vigilant to signs of extremism. A set of guidelines, dubbed “Prevent”, were introduced to oblige universities to carry out risk assessments on the chances of students being drawn into “extremism”, as well as to train staff on how to “challenge extremist ideas”. These punitive and excessive policy measures, imposed by the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act of 2015, are aiming to transform academics into counterterrorism practitioners.
But, unsurprisingly, “Prevent” is failing. A recent study I was involved in showed that academic faculty are not comfortable with fulfilling such duties. Academics are not specialised police officers that can assess and respond to extremist threats. And, on top of not helping to curb “extremism” in universities across the UK in any substantial way, these measures are also endangering basic academic freedoms.
Identifying ‘indicators’ of extremism
When I took part in the Home Office‘s counterterrorism e-learning training package, I was first presented with questions and explanations of the meaning of “terrorism”. Then, possible “indicators” that I should “look out for” as part of my role in helping to combat extremism were introduced. For example, “absenteeism”, “crying” and “unhealthy use of the Internet” were listed as some of the behaviours that may be “a cause for concern”. The suggestion was simple: If individuals display these behaviours, then they may be in danger of extremism, and you should report them.
These so-called “indicators” for extremism are further detailed in the Channel Duty Guidance (the government’s guidelines on how to report suspicious behaviours). In the guidance, 22 broad-ranging criteria that may indicate a student’s likelihood to be drawn into terrorism are identified. Among others, academic staff are expected to report on:
– A desire for excitement and adventure
– A desire for political or moral change
– Family or friends involvement in extremism
– Being at a transitional time of life.
Such broad guidance is less than useful for those tasked with performing this new-found role. The indicators, as outlined above, lack precision, and secondary information is often required. For instance, the guidance suggests that academic staff must be able to identify the wider causes of radicalisation. Also, and perhaps more importantly, these guidelines seek a questionable evidence base which could be dangerous as well as counterproductive.
The ambiguous nature of these guidelines already led to several cases of false accusation. For example, in September 2015, Mohammed Farooq, a postgraduate student of counterterrorism in Staffordshire University, was profiled and questioned for simply reading an academic textbook called, Terrorism Studies, in the college library.
The academic community is ‘nervous’
After reading the government’s “Prevent” guidelines, I was perplexed as to how the government can expect an academic to identify a “terrorist”. I wondered: Do other academics express similar reservations towards their new-found counterterrorism duty and how does this new role affect their university responsibilities?
To find an answer to these critical questions, with my colleagues Dr Keith Spiller and Dr Andrew Whiting, I conducted a study entitled: “What does terrorism look like?: University lecturers’ interpretations of their Prevent duties and tackling extremism in UK universities”.
As part of the study, we interviewed 20 university lecturers from institutions across the UK, and examined their reactions to their new counterterrorism duties.
What we found was that the academic community is “nervous” and indeed sceptical about the duties imposed upon them by the government. Lecturers told us that the counterterrorism measures have been preventing them from building trust with their students, and that they feel they lack the knowledge to identify radical behaviours in their students. One interviewee said: “Staff are just simply not qualified to do this, academic staff are not psychologists or psychiatrists, they’re not counterterrorist practitioners.”
Our study also demonstrated that authorities are not giving adequate support, training and guidance to the academic staff about the counterterrorism duties imposed upon them.
We submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the Home Office in relation to referrals made from the education sector seeking support and advice on the Prevent guidelines. The response we received was ambiguous and certainly did not answer all our questions, but it demonstrated that 29,238 Higher Education/Further Education (HE/FE) staff (this includes any post-secondary school study towards a degree or a vocational qualification) have received training on their counterterrorism duties.
As there are roughly 201,380 academic staff and 208,750 non-academic staff working in UK Universities alone, the numbers provided by the Home Office confirmed our fears that the training efforts are inconsistent at best, and academic staff are completely left to their own devices to identify and report “radical behaviours” in most cases.
A threat to academic freedoms
Today, thanks to the government’s policies that aim to transform academic staff into counterterrorism police, openness, tolerance and freedom of expression in UK universities are under threat.
Academic staff are being encouraged to report their students for reasons like discussing certain “sensitive” topics, asking certain questions or even reading “suspicious” textbooks. Also, universities are being told not to give platform to certain speakers because they have been classified – mostly without any substantial evidence – as extremists or radicals.
All this is stifling academic debate, making university lecturers feel under pressure and forcing them to avoid “risky” subjects and ideas rather than challenging, questioning and confronting them. The University and College Union attested that the Prevent duty “seriously threatens academic freedom and freedom of speech”.
With the “Prevent” guidelines, the government is trying to incorporate academic staff into a state surveillance programme. Lecturers are being forced to monitor and judge their students against an ambiguous, all-inclusive framework that few found helpful. These types of measures can never counter terror threats, and can only lead to an Orwellian society in which the police and the state have broad and intrusive powers and academic debate is silenced.
The best way to challenge the hateful rhetoric espoused by extremists is to make sure we continue to celebrate democracy, free speech and freedom of expression – the very things extremists would like to curb. The Prevent strategy, however, is a threat to all these principles. We urgently need an independent review of anti-extremism policies.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.