The controversial counter-terrorism strategy, Prevent, is being formally rolled out at the University of Glasgow this term. Documents sent to University employees detail how staff are expected to report students they believe are being radicalised. The documents also detail the rights of the University to block speakers they deem inappropriate from hosting events on campus and describe new guidelines for navigating the “ethics approval process” to access online materials blocked by the University’s web filter.
The Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015 introduced a new statutory duty compelling universities to have “due regard to the need to prevent individuals from being drawn into terrorism.” This means that universities are now legally obliged to engage with the Prevent strategy and as such university staff are likewise legally obligated to report students they suspect are being radicalised.
One section of the advice sent to University of Glasgow staff states, “institutions may […] require to place conditions on certain speakers or events, or indeed to refuse to allow them on campus. This should be done only in exceptional circumstances, and where the institution, having considered carefully the available information, believes that there is a serious risk that the speaker or event will breach the law and/or will pose a significant risk to the wellbeing of students, staff or visitors.”
At the University of Glasgow, objections to speakers will be brought to David Newall, the Secretary of Court, who chairs the University’s Prevent group and will decide whether to “allow and securely manage; postpone; or cancel the event”.
As non-public charitable bodies, both student unions as well as the SRC are immune from the legislative obligations to report suspicions about particular students. However, the University does still retain the right to override a decision to host a controversial speaker made by a student union.
The Scottish Government’s Prevent Strategy Working group states: “Unions may, as independent charitable bodies, wish to establish their own protocol for making decisions on controversial speakers and events organised by student societies. It is possible though that, where a student union supports a particular speaker or event, the institution may nevertheless be unwilling to allow the event to take place on campus.”
Prevent has been widely criticised by teaching unions and human rights organisations. The police chief charged with leading Prevent, Simon Cole, has also recently expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the programme in its current form, stating: “Unless you can define what extremism is very clearly then it’s going to be really challenging to enforce. We don’t want to be the thought police, we absolutely don’t want to be the thought police.”