Most students in British universities support Prevent
Terrorism on campus
A second difficulty is that the authors are shockingly naïve and misinformed about what they refer to as the ‘lack of evidence’ concerning the ‘presumed risk’ of recruitment into terrorism on campus. Other studies show that at least 20 prominent jihadis were educated at British universities, about a third of those who have been convicted of jihadi terrorist-related offences in the UK have been through university, and agitation to join jihad abroad was rife in the tertiary sector in Britain in the 1990s. This risk may, however, have declined since the mid-2000s precisely because of Prevent and other interventions, a possibility Islam and Muslims on UK University Campuses simply ignores.
It is not surprising, therefore, that, although refraining from calling for the abolition of Prevent, generally or in higher education specifically, the authors are, nevertheless, equivocal about it. They recommend instead that it be ‘discontinued in its current form’. In their view, this means that it should be applied openly, critically and with sensitivity to local circumstances, that students and staff should be consulted about how it is being implemented at their own institutions, that clear expert guidance should be available to protect freedom of expression, and that free and frank debate about all ideologies should be encouraged in an atmosphere of critical thinking and mutual respect.
However, thirdly, the most fundamental problem of all is that, by totally disregarding and misunderstanding the legal and regulatory environment, the authors fail to realise that their most contentious conclusions are unsustainable and that all their proposals are already being fully observed. Crucially, although stating the Prevent duty correctly, the report ignores the fact that, in the tertiary sector, it is balanced by two competing and more weighty legal obligations – to have ‘particular regard’ for the importance of academic freedom and for ensuring freedom of speech – implementation of which is monitored by the Office for Students (OfS).
In Prevent review meetings – Findings from the 2019 programme, the OfS reports, for example, that policies and procedures are in place to manage security-sensitive research, Prevent-related acceptable IT usage protocols are clear, and providers continue to engage and consult with students on how safeguarding from radicalisation is being conducted. Nor, according to the OfS, is there any cause for concern that, with respect to external speakers, Prevent is undermining freedom of expression. Of greatest significance, however, is the fact that, based on its system-wide monitoring, the OfS authoritatively expresses its confidence that providers are balancing their Prevent duty with other statutory obligations which, as already indicated, include having ‘particular regard’ for the importance of academic freedom and for ensuring freedom of speech.
Over the past decade and a half rejectionist critiques of Prevent have spun a web of mythology, especially in the higher education context, based on little more than distorted speculation and political prejudice often masquerading as serious social science. If the risk of jeopardising legitimate counterterrorism is to be avoided, there is an urgent need for this to be exposed and challenged. Islam and Muslims on UK University Campuses dispels some. But, regrettably, it also endorses many others which the research upon which it is based conspicuously fails to support. It is not surprising, therefore, that the authors make a series of recommendations, all of which are already firmly in place.
Steven Greer, Professor of Human Rights, University of Bristol Law School.
You can read more of Steven's articles here: Deradicalisation and the London Bridge attack, Is counter terrorism in Britain racist and/or Islamophobic?, and Counter terrorism and the 2019 British General Election.