Higher education is at the heart of the UK’s counter-terrorism efforts

Young people are more at-risk of joining terrorist groups or being arrested for terrorist offences. University policies to protect them are essential, says Lord Agnew

June 8, 2018
Stop terrorism (counterterrorism) sign

The politician and philosopher Edmund Burke once said that for evil to triumph, it only needs good men to do nothing. The scourge of extremism represents one of the most direct threats to our way of life – doing nothing is not an option.

My colleagues at the Home Office have just launched their updated counter-terrorism strategy, Contest, which sets out our response to the evolving threat of terrorism. Central to it is government, agencies, the private sector and communities working in partnership at international, national and local level.

It is a sad fact that young people make up a disproportionate number of those who have been arrested in connection with terrorist offences or who set off to join terrorist groups. Schools, colleges and universities are therefore uniquely placed to not only help stop this behaviour but also to prevent their students from becoming radicalised in the first place.  

One group of committed professionals in the frontline of the struggle against extremism are the Department of Education’s regional co-ordinators on Prevent and counter extremism, who work in further and higher education. 

In 2015 the government introduced the Prevent duty to make it a legal requirement for every educational establishment to have specific policies to protect vulnerable people from being drawn into terrorism. The majority of universities have already embedded protocols to meet these legal requirements. There are many good examples to learn from, for instance the University of the West of England and De Montfort University, that have fully embedded Prevent as part of their approach to student welfare.

However, a small number of colleges and universities still have some way to go. I want to make them aware of the great work these co-ordinators do, and reassure these institutions that this team are here to help. Their job is to keep young people safe from radicalisation, while at the same time helping to spread ways of working that mean extremism has less chance to gain a foothold.

Many people are unaware of their contribution. For example, they work with local partners to ensure institutions understand and manage risk. They are on hand to provide advice, guidance and support to help institutions to embed the Prevent duty effectively or to respond when there is a cause for concern. This could be by preventing those who promote hateful ideologies from addressing students or, supporting students who are susceptible to radicalisation.

One of the challenges colleges and universities face is that they must continue to be places where young people feel they can comfortably debate controversial subjects and ideas – it is, after all, part of the reason they are there. It’s a balancing act, but Prevent co-ordinators can advise and support institutions to promote freedom of speech, while at the same time protecting vulnerable students.

This support can include helping institutions where there may be a need to safeguard vulnerable students through the Channel programme. This is a voluntary, multi-agency scheme that aims to protect and support people at risk of being drawn into terrorism. The principles are similar to the safeguarding processes that exist to protect against gang activity, drugs, and physical or sexual abuse.

One of the success stories, which is typical of these outreach pioneers who are based throughout the country, concerns a university that became alarmed when one of its students declared an intention to travel to Syria. The co-ordinator advised the university on how to swiftly engage the student and provide the right support and legal advice. The upshot was the student did not go to Syria and is not now a terrorist or a casualty of war.

Co-ordinators are not expected to shoulder this burden in isolation. We are constantly upgrading the resources we provide and have supported the development of specific online training materials through the Education & Training Foundation and Safe Campus Communities websites. For universities, the Office for Students is tasked with monitoring compliance with Prevent duty in its inspections, while Ofsted carries out the same role for colleges. Both are well placed to flag where a university or college might be falling short in its obligations. 

Much of this is reactive in nature. The more proactive solution is the promotion of fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. Explaining these values can help people better integrate into society – particularly those who are at risk of alienation or disengagement.

Education is at the heart of the effort to strengthen our multi-racial, multi-faith democracy and play a vital role in tackling extremism. Through education, we can ensure future generations learn the values that underpin our society – such as fairness, tolerance and respect. In this way we are helping to ensure that resilience is built-in against extremist ideology so that young people are better prepared for life in a modern, diverse Britain.

Lord Theodore Agnew is minister for the school system.

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