Revised guidance has been published that sets out how universities should prevent students from being drawn into terrorism.
The government’s “Prevent” guidance, which details how higher education institutions should exercise the statutory duty that was placed on them by the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, has been redrawn amid concerns about the potential impact on academic freedom and freedom of expression.
Much debate had focused on the hosting of external speakers on university campuses, and the revised guidance states that relevant higher education bodies (RHEBs) should “consider carefully whether the views being expressed, or likely to be expressed, constitute extremist views that risk drawing people into terrorism or are shared by terrorist groups”.
“In these circumstances the event should not be allowed to proceed except where RHEBs are entirely convinced that such risk can be fully mitigated without cancellation of the event,” the guidance says. “This includes ensuring that, where any event is being allowed to proceed, speakers with extremist views that could draw people into terrorism are challenged with opposing views as part of that same event, rather than in a separate forum.
“Where RHEBs are in any doubt that the risk cannot be fully mitigated they should exercise caution and not allow the event to proceed.”
Universities should have a system for assessing and rating such risks, the guidance says, including for events that take place off campus but are university affiliated, funded or branded.
The guidance adds that universities will be expected to assess “where and how” their students might be at risk of being drawn into terrorism, including “not just violent extremism but also non-violent extremism, which can create an atmosphere conducive to terrorism and can popularise views which terrorists exploit”.
Before the general election, Liberal Democrat members of the coalition government had argued that non-violent extremism should not be included in the guidance, but Conservative ministers have now opted to leave the reference in.
Universities should consider the use of content filters on their computers to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism, and should have clear policies for students and staff working on extremism-related research, the guidance says.
The document adds that there should also be clear policies for the use of prayer rooms and other faith facilities, potentially including an oversight committee, and that universities should have “robust procedures both internally and externally for sharing information about vulnerable individuals”.
The guidance, which covers England and Wales, must be put before MPs before it can come into force, as agreed during the debate on the bill. Separate guidance has been drawn up for Scottish universities.
Universities UK said that it would “continue to engage” with institutions and the government on the implementation of the guidance.
“Universities UK’s priority will be to ensure that universities take all necessary steps to prevent violent extremism, and secure free speech. It is not one or the other,” said Nicola Dandridge, the organisation’s chief executive. “External speakers play an important role in university life, not least in terms of encouraging students to challenge other people’s views and develop their own opinions.”
Security minister John Hayes said: “The issue of how universities and colleges balance the Prevent duty with the importance of academic freedom is an extremely important one.
“We have now issued draft guidance for higher and further education institutions on managing external speakers. The guidance makes clear that speakers with extremist views must not go unchallenged."