By Andrew Whiting
First announced in January 2019, last week saw the publication of the long-awaited independent review of Prevent led by Lord Shawcross. Prevent is controversial and this review has had its own controversies. The review’s original lead was replaced after legal challenge and the subsequent appointment of Shawcross led to a boycott by several civil liberty groups, many of whom went on to contribute to the alternative People’s Review of Prevent. Shawcross clarifies in his foreword that the review was completed sometime in early 2022 (p. 3) but a decision appears to have been taken by the Government to delay publication perhaps on account of how leaked draft extracts were received last summer.
For the last few years I have been conducting research into Prevent, predominantly focusing on the Prevent duty (henceforth ‘the duty’) within UK Higher Education (UKHE). In the summer of 2021 myself and two colleagues were approached to conduct a study for the independent review. The principle aims of this research were to speak with university students about their awareness, understanding, and experiences of Prevent. These were informative conversations and we felt it was important to talk to those affected by the duty. Our report was submitted to the review team, and it is available to read here. There is a lot to say about this review but in this blog I will share some of my reflections on the duty, its placement in UKHE and ongoing tensions about what Prevent is.
The Prevent Duty in UKHE
The arrival of the duty represented a significant expansion of counter-terrorism policy into the public sector. Critics have argued that the duty has deputised frontline workers into specialised counter‑terrorism work while rendering members of the public as potential radicalisation risks. Prevent’s framing as a safeguarding initiative is the primary means the Government has used to head off this criticism (more on this below) and the review is clear in its support of the duty and desire to expand it (p. 81).
I was interested to read the conclusions drawn about the duty in UKHE but some of the assessments and conclusions here are puzzling. With regards to staff training, Shawcross writes that he heard from Universities UK, ‘that Prevent training was primarily provided to administrative staff’ (p. 86). The “who and how” of staff training is not totally clear despite some academic research (Whiting, et al, 2021) and reporting by the Office for Students. Nevertheless, the notion that training has been largely targeted at administrative staff seems at odds with an increasing number of institutions that have embedded Prevent as part of mandatory training for academics, in some instances linking it to probation. Nevertheless, this conversation with Universities UK clearly left Shawcross feeling that training needs to be more extensive, which is reflected in the review’s second guiding principle (p. 157). However, there are practical impediments to doing this and one wonders how much additional training a lecturer (or a doctor, nurse, or teacher for that matter) will need to do before the Home Office will be satisfied all have the ‘confidence needed to identify extremism’ (p. 157). These practical considerations are one thing, but they have more significant ethical ramifications if the designation of Prevent as safeguarding is less certain (covered in the safeguarding section below).
Across the review, Shawcross spends a significant amount of time discussing a ‘concerted campaign to undermine’ Prevent (p. 131). Within UKHE, the ‘anti-Prevent narratives dominating British Universities’ (p. 89) has led to much ‘uncontested disinformation’ that has undermined compliance, fuelled fears of minority groups being targeted, caused self-censorship, and provided a barrier to referrals. Students choosing to self-censor manifests as an absence of speech and so poses obvious challenges for researchers trying to investigate its prevalence. However, recent studies including our own have spoken with students and revealed that this is occurring (Brown and Saeed, 2015; Zempi and Tripli, 2022).
Self‑imposed limits on free speech in an environment that promotes academic freedom is concerning, so it was reassuring to read that Shawcross believes this is happening and shares these concerns. However, attributing this phenomenon to instances where staff and students have been affected by a deliberate campaign of disinformation is politically convenient. It is certainly true, as our study demonstrated, that there is significant variation in understandings of what Prevent is and what its objectives entail. However, reducing the anxiety to speak to the influence of an external campaign, in particular when talking about Muslim staff and students, ignores the effects of Islamophobia in UK society.
So, is it safeguarding?
However, as mentioned above there is a bigger conceptual issue stemming from this review that has ethical ramifications for its positioning within the public sector. Recent iterations of Prevent have emphasised the strategy as a safeguarding initiative. Indeed, I would argue that framing Prevent as a ‘soft’ and ‘politically neutral’ example of safeguarding was integral to the Government’s efforts to justify its expansion into the public sector. Nurses, teachers, and lecturers all have a duty of care and in this sense Prevent could be seen as an extension of the familiar. I’ve often heard the refrain, ‘it’s just safeguarding’, when voicing concerns about Prevent. The implication here is that Prevent is just about keeping people safe and who could be against that? Of course, I take my duty of care as an employee within UKHE seriously, but these exchanges miss the point that Prevent might not be safeguarding or at least might not be wholly safeguarding.
It appears Shawcross agrees and is ‘concerned’ about viewing Prevent in these terms. He argues that doing so represents an ‘excessively narrow way to view the attempts to stop terrorism’ (p. 116) and worries that the ‘characterisation of Prevent work as wholly focused on supporting vulnerable individuals fails to adequately identify the majority of individuals who become terrorists or support terrorist activity’ (p. 42). Here, Shawcross utilises a narrower definition of vulnerability (the ‘genuinely vulnerable’) that translates to, ‘welfare concerns and circumstances beyond an individual’s control which may increase their risk of exploitation’ (p. 43).
This isn’t just semantics. What Prevent is has ramifications on where responsibility lies and how we ask those with responsibility to implement it. If the review is conceding that Prevent is not or not just safeguarding, this changes the relationship between the strategy, its practitioners, and the public. To be clear, critics have made this point in the past without needing to read this review first. Still, the acceptance of this reframing by Shawcross changes the game somewhat. It’s one thing to ask a doctor to safeguard patients, it is another to ask them to do counter-terrorism work with a high degree of confidence alongside their actual job.
There is more that could be said about this review and recommendations not covered here such as the need to focus (or refocus) the strategy on Islamism have already received prominent coverage. There are also areas that received comparatively little consideration within the review such as contested understandings of key terms (a focus of our report) and, of particular interest to readers of this blog, the role of online spaces in (counter-)radicalisation. Overall, while this review is critical of Prevent at several junctures, it ultimately provides a defence of the strategy and argues for it to be clarified as preventative counter‑terrorism, strengthened, and promoted to the public. In particular with the public duty in mind I don’t think this is an expedient or ethical approach. The review advocates for a bigger, better, and stronger Prevent but it does so while also exposing the strategy’s unstable foundations. I understand that counter-terrorism and counter‑radicalisation work is complex and that practitioners are not infallible. However, I fear the direction advocated by this review could see further securitisation of daily life without delivering security.
Brown, K. E. and Saeed, T. (2015) ‘Radicalisation and counter-radicalisation at British’ Universities: Muslim encounters and alternatives’, Ethnic Racial Studies, 38(11): 1952-1968.
Whiting, A., Campbell, B., Spiller, K. and Awan I. (2021) ‘The Prevent Duty in UK higher education: Insights from freedom of information requests’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 23(3): 513-532.
Zempi, I. and Tripli, A. (2022) ‘Listening to Muslim students’ voices on the Prevent Duty in British Universities: A qualitative study’, Education, Citizenship and Social Justice, Online First: https://doi.org/10.1177/17461979221077990.
Andrew Whiting is a Reader in Security Studies at Birmingham City University. Andrew’s research explores the constitutive effects of various different security discourses and their impact upon wider collective understandings and security practices. More recently Andrew has investigated the expansion of UK counter-extremism into higher education; work that has been funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.
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