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On the 21st March 2017 the Henry Jackson Society welcomed Sam Slack, Jessica Trahar and its own Rupert Sutton, to discuss the launch of Sutton’s report – ‘Mitigating the Risks? Compliance with the Prevent Duty on Campus’. By kind invitation of the Chair Jim Fitzpatrick MP.
Sutton is a Research Fellow at the HJS, where he runs the ‘Student Rights’ campaign, which focuses on extremism on university campuses. Trahar is Head of Strategic Development at Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and leads the HEFCE Prevent team. Slack has been the regional HE/FE Prevent Coordinator for the Department for Education covering the East Midlands since 2013.
The PREVENT strategy was made into law in September 2015 via the Counter Terrorism and Security Act. Higher and further education establishments are now legally bound to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. This includes assessing the risks from events which host radical speakers and acting accordingly to mitigate any danger of extreme or intolerant speech. Over a year later, Sutton’s report assesses the PREVENT policies of universities and the progress they have made.
Sutton first outlined the findings of the report. It takes a sample of 76 English universities and investigates how they are implementing their PREVENT policies. It asks 20 questions of each policy based on their frameworks, application processes and risk assessment and mitigation. Their answers determine their overall PREVENT Duty score. Sutton’s report found that the common score fell between 70% and 80%. This demonstrates a positive response to the way higher education institutions are reacting to their new responsibilities.
Another finding of the report was that the institutions that historically faced the greatest challenge from radical speakers at events had some of the highest-scoring policies. This indicates that these institutions have sought to mitigate any risk to students whilst simultaneously continuing to uphold the values of freedom of speech. However, there were sector-wide inconsistencies in the level of detail of the screening process. In 40% of institutions the report found that there were gaps in prevention of radical speakers. For example at Queen Mary, where their radical screening is in fact of a sufficient standard, Sutton found that students were simply organising events off of campus. Overall, the findings of the report were positive.
Trahar then spoke on how higher education institutions were implementing their Prevent Duty strategies. She pointed out that universities are autonomous institutions, so it is inevitable that implantation of the law will vary. In total there are 321 HE providers, so context is critical and no one size fits all.
To addresses issues, HEFCE has worked with the Department of Education and other sector representatives to create the Leadership Foundation, which has helped institutions meet their requirements. Where limited engagement was found, action plans were made to increase their policies and procedures. On the whole, however, Trahar maintains that it is a very small minority not adhering to PREVENT guidance. Different types of education providers were making the appropriate policies that suited them and overall PREVENT is working well.
Finally Slack discussed how PREVENT co-ordinators from the Department of Education play a supportive role in helping higher education institutions. Slack stressed that the role of Coordinators from the Department is primarily supportive and not meant to be regulatory. He describes his role as enabling debate, not disrupting it. Sensitive subjects that attract controversial speakers are usually the most ground-breaking and need free speech protection.
Slack wanted to affirm the minimal amount of disruption that PREVENT causes. It only applies to quite a small number of events and Student Unions are not subject to the law, it is the responsibilities of the universities themselves. The DoE offers supports by: helping universities, organisations and speakers with open source checks; offering advice to Student unions and universities; and delivering bespoke training to student societies to help them put on good events, such as training Chairs to manage powerful speakers.
A pilot scheme recently launched enables Student Unions to select from a pool of people who are highly skilled Chairs and able to act independently. Unions can utilise this service if they feel that their university is unable to act impartially. On his thoughts on the future, Slack said that the next focus will be to assess the risks from Skype events as it will be more difficult to monitor radical speakers if they are not even in the same country.