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How lecturers are pushing back against counter-terrorism creep into universities

It’s approaching three years since a counter-terrorism duty came into effect in universities. It placed a legal duty on people in the public sector – including teachers, lecturers, doctors and nurses – to report people who may be deemed to be vulnerable to radicalisation.

Soon after its introduction in September 2015, my colleagues Keith Spiller, Andrew Whiting, and I asked 20 university lecturers what they thought about the duty – also known as the Prevent duty – placed on them by the 2015 Counter Terrorism and Security Act, and the impact it was having on their jobs. We conducted the interviews between April and November 2016 and our study was published in late 2017.

The lecturers we spoke to were still questioning whether it should be their role to tackle radicalisation and felt that the new legislation would infringe upon expressions of intellectual freedom. Some argued that the rules undermined some of the core functions of a university. As one lecturer put it:

[The university’s] primary function is about debate, conduct of research, producing and disseminating knowledge and also dissent I think is really important. Universities should be a space for speaking truth to power … this kind of responsibility makes that far more difficult.

Resistance to act as ‘state’ agents

Placing a duty on lecturers to act upon signs of potential radicalisation is likely to heighten a sense of fear among staff and students, especially if it’s viewed as curtailing academic freedoms and setting out the topics students may feel comfortable discussing. Another lecturer we interviewed expressed concerns about how the new duty would impact upon his professional standing with students. He said:

If I was expected to engage in significant monitoring of students it is likely that they, or at least some groups, would consider me to be a member of the state or at least [the] university apparatus, and be significantly more suspicious of me and cautious of what could be said.

Questions of trust and freedom of expression.

Identifying as an agent of the state may run counter to how a lecturer views themselves – but it could also limit the freedom of expression of a student who dresses in a certain way or has a certain viewpoint. As one lecturer put it:

How can we build trust with our students when the very thing we are doing will create suspicion and mistrust?

The lecturer said she had been approached by a colleague who wanted to know if she should report a student who wears a face veil and had travelled to Turkey on holiday.

Read more: Explainer: what happens to people who are suspected of being 'radicalised'?

The duty has also added to staff workloads, which are often already stretched. This may have added to the reluctance of staff to engage with the law. As one lecturer put it:

Staff are just simply not qualified to do this, academic staff are not psychologists or psychiatrists, they’re not counter-terrorist practitioners, they’re frequently overworked and balancing multiple responsibilities. There is something particularly dangerous I think about asking staff to become involved in these kind of matters.

However, it’s in these fractious moments where “little” resistances to the responsibilities of the law come to the fore. For many of those we spoke to, the demands of the duty went beyond their role as educators. As one lecturer put it:

I will not report something, but if I know a person is going to plant a bomb, then yes, I will call the police.

Another added:

I think people think very strongly about it … you know [my university] has a reputation for being a radical political place. I think it would totally undermine … core bits of our identity if we were suddenly trying to squash debate in that way.

Scant training

To gain some clarity on the impact of the law, we also submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the Home Office. We were told that between October 2014 and October 2016, 29,238 staff at higher education and further education institutions had received training on the new Prevent duty. Although there will have been more training since, this is a tiny proportion of the 201,380 academic staff and 208,750 non-academic staff working in UK universities alone in 2016-17.

But our request for information on the number of referrals made by these staff, and whether the referrals led to the participation of a student in a de-radicalisation programme was refused.

Read more: New counter-terror rules give GPs bizarre incentives to refer mental health patients as radicalisation threat

Academics have openly criticised the “risk factors” used to identify signs of radicalisation as flawed. I believe this, and the inconsistency of training across the sector, has contributed to why lecturers felt unprepared to identify radical behaviour.

This is not to say that more training will provide an answer to all the issues raised by the lecturers we spoke to. While it may serve to increase lecturers’ knowledge about the subject, and in turn, their confidence identifying the signs of radicalisation, it doesn’t address deeper issues about the practical implications of placing a legal requirement on them to spot signs of radicalisation.

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