University referrals to Prevent ‘strikingly low’, says review

Controversial counter-terror scheme widely shunned by academics despite risks to universities from extremist groups

February 9, 2023
Source: iStock

UK universities are under threat from being targeted by extremist organisations but referrals from the sector to the controversial Prevent programme have been “strikingly low”, according to the Westminster government’s review of Prevent.

The review, conducted by William Shawcross, a former chair of the Charity Commission, concludes the scheme had repeatedly “apparently failed” to identify potential attackers.

Mr Shawcross raises issues with training, compliance and “disinformation” relating to Prevent in the UK university system, concluding: “It is clear that anti-Prevent narratives dominate the discourse about Prevent in British universities.”

The former journalist has argued counter-terrorism efforts have focused too heavily on the threat posed by right-wing extremists, neglecting Islamist terrorism, which he has said is still by far the greatest threat to the country.

But Mr Shawcross has faced criticism for his views on Islam that led many groups to boycott the review, with Amnesty International saying it was “deeply prejudiced” and therefore had “no legitimacy”. Studies have previously found that Muslim students and staff have said anti-terror efforts have left them feeling under suspicion on campuses.

Mr Shawcross writes that he has not seen “any evidence” to suggest that the dangers extremism poses to universities have diminished since a 2011 review concluded there was “unambiguous evidence” organisations target educational institutions “for the purpose of radicalisation and recruitment”.

He highlights several cases of terrorism involving students at UK universities including Mohammed Emwazi, who attended the University of Westminster and went on to join Islamic State in Syria, as well as the Manchester Arena bomber, Salman Abedi, who was at the University of Salford.

“These issues raise concern about the mitigation of radicalisation risk at FE and HE institutions,” Mr Shawcross writes.

His report finds Prevent awareness training has been too focused on administrative staff members and should be expanded to include any university staff with student-facing responsibilities, including lecturers. This is likely to be resisted by the likes of the University and College Union, which has previously opposed attempts to require staff to undergo such training.

Special attention should be paid to those staff who authorise on-campus events, Mr Shawcross writes, due to concerns that external speakers have been invited on to campuses and allowed to express radical views without challenge.

The report states there was “uncertainty as to whether staff are aware of such events, or have the training and resources required to conduct due diligence”.

“Many such speakers are relatively unknown, despite having expressed Islamist views,” according to Mr Shawcross. “I fear that events advertised with extremists without a public profile are not being subjected to sufficient due diligence checks and risk mitigation by universities.”

HE providers are “less likely to identify a radicalisation concern than a wider safeguarding issue”, the report states, which is attributed in part to the “negative perceptions” of the scheme that are present in many institutions.

“I believe that these factors are contributing to the strikingly low number of Prevent referrals from HE,” Mr Shawcross writes, pointing out that between August 2016 and July 2017, just 24 Prevent referrals came from HE providers, which the Office for Students has said was consistent with referrals from other years.

Mr Shawcross says he is concerned at what he calls “widespread and uncontested disinformation” being spread about Prevent at universities, including fears it targets minority groups, particularly Muslims. 

In its response to the report, the government said it accepted that staff need to be given more training on managing the risks of hosting external events and the need for specific measures “to counter the anti-Prevent campaign at universities”, and it will be taking action in these areas.

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