Universities and Counter-Terrorism in the UK: ‘Educators Not Informants!’, ‘Boycott Prevent!’?

By Prof Steven Greer, Professor of Human Rights (University of Bristol Law School).

PreventHow – consistent with democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and the preservation of cosmopolitan community cohesion and public confidence in law and its enforcement – should the UK respond to the threat posed by terrorism and, in particular, how should it seek to prevent people, especially vulnerable young people, from being enticed into it? These questions have arisen in a particularly acute form as a result of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 which, amongst other things, imposes a legal duty upon schools, universities, charities, the NHS etc – but not directly upon their staff individually – to ‘have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.’ This may include banning some activities, regulating others, and/or taking appropriate steps to identify those who may be at risk and to refer them to appropriate welfare agencies.

The policy of the University and College Union (UCU) – which represents over 110,000 academic and other staff in higher and further education in the UK – is to boycott the requirements of the Act and the wider ‘Prevent strategy’ of which it is a part, on the grounds that they seriously threaten academic freedom, stifle campus activism, require staff to engage in racial profiling, legitimize Islamophobia, and jeopardize safe and supportive learning environments. Hence the slogans ‘Educators Not Informants!’, ‘Boycott Prevent!’, ‘Prevent Prevent!’ and ‘I Dissent from Prevent!’ which circulate in and around the campaign. This blog summarises work in progress – part of a much larger project concerning terrorism, counterterrorism and human rights in the post-9/11 UK – which argues that the UCU boycott is not only illegal, illegitimate and deeply flawed, but also potentially dangerous and irresponsible.

While declining to propose any alternative to the 2015 Act, other than the ineffective status quo ante, the basic assumptions of the UCU campaign are deeply problematic, including, in particular, the failure adequately to acknowledge the following. Terrorism poses a clear, serious and prevalent threat in the UK including to institutions of further and higher education which cannot be exempt from contributing to preventing young people and others from being drawn into it for two main reasons: this is a universal democratic obligation and the battle of ideas is a key arena of conflict in the struggle against it. The ‘Prevent’ strategy and the 2015 Act are not only attempts to formalize this contribution, but are also direct responses to urgent and palpable problems – particularly the recruitment of up to 1,000 (mostly young) people from the UK to fight for, or to support, ISIS in Iraq and Syria – not otherwise being effectively tackled. Prevent and the 2015 Act are largely legitimate and defensible because they are not inherently inconsistent with democracy, human rights, or the rule of law.

Relevant Prevent duties are not criminal/punitive by nature but are framed in terms of safeguarding vulnerable adults by providing appropriate procedures. Furthermore, in the university context, the 2015 Act requires the duty to have ‘due regard’ to preventing people from being drawn into terrorism to be balanced against the prima facie stronger duty to have ‘particular regard’ for academic freedom and freedom of expression. However, in higher education and elsewhere, the implementation of the Prevent duty may, nevertheless, present challenges to human rights, cosmopolitan community cohesion and to public confidence in law enforcement particularly with respect to ‘non-violent extremism’. The Queen’s Speech on 18 May 2016 promised a Counter Extremism and Safeguarding Bill with the equivalent of anti-social behaviour orders for ‘extremists’, Ofcom regulation for internet-streamed TV, and intervention in unregulated religious schools. But how ‘extremism’ will be defined, and what the implications for universities will be, remain unclear.

Several significant problems with the management of the UCU campaign also undermine its legitimacy. The boycott was decided at the May 2015 Congress without members having been consulted. Following legal advice that it would be unlawful, the campaign was then devolved to branches with the UCU itself acknowledging that local boycotts would constitute continuous industrial action which will also be illegal without ballots approving them. And why disaggregating a national campaign is an appropriate response to national legislation, which the UCU believes should be vigorously opposed, has not been explained. Subsequent developments also call the credibility of the UCU campaign further into question. The University of Bristol branch has, for example, both canvassed support for a boycott – neglecting to inform members that participation could expose them to legal action for breach of their employment contracts – while simultaneously sitting on the University’s Prevent Compliance Group.

But, most seriously of all, by actively seeking to discourage university staff from being aware of, sharing concerns with each other about, and taking adequate responsibility for preventing students from being drawn into terrorism, the UCU campaign potentially risks reducing the kind of vigilance upon which the successful prevention of atrocities such as those witnessed in Madrid, London, Norway, Paris, and Brussels may critically depend. By contrast, the policy of the almost 400,000 member National Union of Teachers, the UK’s largest teachers’ union – to comply with the Act’s requirements while requesting an official re-think – is much to be preferred.

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