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Not all universities are the same. Neil T, CC BY-SA

New duty to prevent terrorism must protect universities’ freedom and diversity

Universities are acutely aware of their role in preventing terrorism. Now the government has proposed a statutory duty in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill that will require universities, schools, prisons, hospitals and local authorities to “have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”.

This duty is very general, raising big questions about what steps universities will have to take to meet it. Universities must ensure that the unique nature of higher education is reflected in this new requirement.

Many would argue that universities already work closely with the police and security services to prevent terrorism. They engage with the government’s Prevent initiative and many provide postgraduate courses in counter-terrorism.

Universities are also undertaking significant work in the prevention of violent extremism. This ranges from protocols on internet usage to oversight of prayer rooms and from external speaker policies to the forging of strong and sustainable links with local community and religious leaders. It forms part of a university’s wider duty of care to staff and students. But it is also important to appreciate that many of the security issues that occur at universities originate with individuals who are not members of the university in question.

Broad brush-stroke

The new statutory duty in the Bill is relatively general. This is no doubt a consequence of ensuring it can be applied to a diverse range of public bodies and public authorities, including universities and schools. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will now be drawing up accompanying guidance to set out in further detail what steps universities are expected to take to meet the duty.

My colleagues at Universities UK and I have met with the business secretary, Vince Cable, and the higher education minister, Greg Clark, to discuss the broad proposals for higher education, emphasising the need to protect freedom of speech, while ensuring an appropriate level of diligence. The guidance is still to be developed and, we are told, will be subject to extensive consultation.

Precisely because universities are home to huge numbers of independent, adult students who lead full and active lives both on and off campus, the contents of the guidance must not only reflect the diversity of the sector, but must also adopt a proportionate, pragmatic and reasonable approach.

The Bill also places an obligation on local authorities to ensure there is a local panel in place with the explicit function of assessing the extent to which identified individuals are vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism and determining a support plan for those individuals. What is currently unclear is the role universities will play in these proposed panels, even though it is essential that universities must have a strong voice in any discussions relating to their staff or students.

Far-reaching consequences

The reason we need to scrutinise the development of the Bill and the associated guidance lies with the fact that this is a new legislative power, with potentially far-reaching consequences for the operations of universities.

There are fundamental principles at stake that go to the heart of what universities are about. The exact practical meaning of “due regard” still remains unclear. It will also be important to define when extreme political views become views that might draw people into terrorism. Who decides where the boundaries lie and what evidence is required? Universities need to be clear how any new duty fits with their statutory obligation to promote free speech.

These are profoundly difficult questions – and the concern is that they will be answered in different ways by different people. But however the questions are answered, it is obvious that a one-size-fits all approach must be avoided.

We must ensure that the guidance acknowledges the independence of our richly diverse and heterogeneous sector. It’s important that the government strikes the right balance between protecting our community and safeguarding free speech and the independence of our universities. The voice of the university sector must be heard as the guidance is developed.

Next read: Spying on academics will not help fight terrorism

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