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More flaws exposed on implementation of Prevent extremism duties

28th Dec 2017
More flaws exposed on implementation of Prevent extremism duties

Under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 UK universities have a statutory duty to have ‘due regard to the need to prevent individuals from being drawn into terrorism’ (Photo: Creative Commons)

Hamed Chapman

There is a “void of comprehension” in statutory duties imposed on universities to remain vigilant to signs of so-called extremism that poses a “serious risk of defensive reporting as well as a disproportionate focus on suspect communities,” a new academic study has warned.

“Without adequate knowledge and skills lecturers are not equipped to conduct the work mandated upon them,” a report published by the Criminology Department at Birmingham City University found.
More pressing, it argued, is that “neoliberal approaches adopted by governments and universities towards security and education present a troubling perspective on how profit may override all else and indeed how open and critical debate is enjoyed.”

The research, entitled ‘What does terrorism look like?’, examined the interpretation of controversial Prevent extremism duties imposed on university lecturers by the UK Counter Terrorism and Security Act (CTSA) that was rushed through Parliament in 2015. The duties were imposed on local authorities, the police, prisons, probation services, schools and colleges as well as universities to effectively monitor those they supervise for signs of radicalisation.

Based on 20 interviews with UK university lecturers, the paper examines the reactions of the academic community to this governmental mandate. Key to their understanding was the “deputisation of lecturers into a security regime and how they perform the duty of identifying and monitoring extremism.”

Equally were forms of resistance that were evident as well as confusion around the CTSA due to the ambiguous language in which it is presented.

To gain some clarity about the impact of the statutory duties, the authors, Keith Spiller, Imran Awan and Andrew Whiting submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Home Office.

It asked for details on the number of referrals made, how these referrals corresponded to the Channel assessment framework, did referrals lead to participation in de-radicalisation programmes, and completion rates of CTSA training programmes.

It was learnt that 29,238 Higher Education/Further Education staff (includes any post-secondary school study towards a degree or a vocational qualification) have received training. But other requests were declined on the basis that releasing the information may prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs and there is a lack of public interest. The inadequate response, it said, maybe a “continued reflection of the ambiguity of the CTSA message.”

Despite the those trained, the number was just a fraction of the 201,380 academic staff and 208,750 non-academic staff working in UK Universities according to this year’s latest official figures. “The inconsistency of training across the sector will be a contributing factor when lecturers express their lack of knowledge when tasked with identifying radical behaviours,” the authors say.

It was a lack of knowledge that exists while staff are bound by the CTSA mandate to monitor and report.

The lack of training itself though, it was suggested, may only “serve to increase lecturer’s feelings of being more knowledgeable about the subject and in turn, their confidence identifying the signs of radicalisation, (but) it does not address deeper issues within the knowledge base that informs the training.

As previously exposed by Cage and others, it is the deeply flawed Extremist Risk Guidance 22+ (ERG22+) which is supposed to help public sector employees spot anybody vulnerable to the risk of ‘radicalisation’.

The assessment tool has already been deemed to be a model “unfit for purpose.” The 22 factors were not only produced in secret but subsequently relied on an evidence base that was not just unproven and extended far beyond the parameters set by the psychologists who originally developed it.

The latest research believed that a significant problem is that it will be hard to overcome the flaws until aspects like the ERG22 are officially published and debated. “Overlooking the disquiet we felt about viewing our students with suspicion, we were perplexed as to how we could identify a terrorist or terrorism?” the authors said. Before carrying out their interviews, they also wondered if other academics express similar reservations towards their counterterrorism duty and how does this new role impact on their university responsibilities.

“There are clearly concerns about the practical implications of making this a legal requirement to “inform” on students as potential extremists. In addition, institutions face a challenge to their renown for openness, tolerance and freedom of expression. Why a style of dress can be worrisome or why the topic of debate is reportable to Government agencies, all remain deeply problematic to the lecturers we spoke to in UK Universities.”

“Through formally enshrining this duty in law and deputising academic staff into a programme of state surveillance, the Government risks breeding more suspicion between students and staff. Staff remain uncomfortable with the CTSA because they are being asked to act in a way that runs contrary to their understanding of what universities and expressions of intellectual freedoms, as well as creating an environment where staff with inadequate indicators are expected to monitor and report on suspicious behaviour,” the report concluded.

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