A new legal requirement is coming into force in Britain that obliges universities and education institutions to assess and counter extremist preaching on campuses.
Universities Minister Jo Johnson has urged the National Union of Students (NUS) to start supporting counter-radicalization projects and refrain from being associated with controversial organizations.
Writing to the NUS, Johnson said it was disheartening that the Union opposes the government’s Prevent strategy. He added:
“It is my firm view that we all have a role to play in challenging extremist ideologies and protecting students on campus. Ultimately, the Prevent strategy is about protecting people from radicalisation.”
At the same time, the NUS says it has ‘legitimate concerns’ about the policy’s impact on student welfare, the BBC reports.
Starting September 21, UK universities have a new duty to stop extremism, gender segregation at campus events, offer support to students at risk of radicalization and assess invited speakers to ensure no extremists’ views are voiced without counterarguments. The Independent explains the role of universities under this new guidance:
“They will also have a duty to ensure hardline speakers are only provided with a platform if they are challenged at the same event by someone with moderate views.”
The statutory guidance also sets out that universities must have in place information technology policies, student welfare programs and staff training to identify and tackle radicalization incidents.
Prime Minister David Cameron named and shamed universities that have previously hosted events with preachers undermining British values. In 2014, about 70 incidents of Islamist preaching took place at Britain’s campuses. According to the Government’s Extremism Analysis Unit, Queen Mary, King’s College, SOAS and the Kingston University held the most of these events.
Several universities and student unions say the program sabotages freedom of speech and could pressure universities to ban invited speakers. Cameron responded in his Extremism Taskforce meeting that:
“All public institutions have a role to play in rooting out and challenging extremism. It is not about oppressing free speech or stifling academic freedom, it is about making sure that radical views and ideas are not given the oxygen they need to flourish. Schools, universities and colleges, more than anywhere else, have a duty to protect impressionable young minds and ensure that our young people are given every opportunity to reach their potential,” he added.
Tara Hepworth of Pinsent Masons, a university law expert, says the Prevent strategy assigns to universities a challenging task in which their new duties have to align and respect their “existing duties such as freedom of speech, human rights and public order”.
The Prevent strategy is the work of the Extremism Taskforce established two years ago which aims at tackling extremism that could lead to radicalization and both foreign and domestic terrorism. According to Out-Law.com, the Home Office has the power to get authorities to establish guidance to ensure they comply with legal requirements on how to tackle radicalization and terrorism.