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Prevent Strategy 2011: the problem of universities

Commentary, 13 June 2011
Terrorism, Europe
In outlining its Prevent strategy, the UK government has identified university campuses as the new frontline in the battle against Al-Qa'ida. Yet the success of the strategy will depend largely on the willingness of universities to see the problem through the same lense as the government.

In outlining its Prevent strategy, the UK government has identified university campuses as the new frontline in the battle against Al-Qa'ida. Yet the success of the strategy will depend largely on the willingness of universities to see the problem through the same lense as the government.

By Kyle Johnston for

Umar Farouk AbdulmutallabLaunched in 2003 as a central strand of the UK's counter-terrorism strategy (CONTEST), Prevent was intended to stop radicalisation, lower support for violent extremism and discourage people from becoming terrorists. It placed the logic of pre-emption at the heart of the counter-terrorism effort, and to use the words of Charles Farr - Head of the Office for Security and Counter-terrorism - it was the Government's recognition that, as a nation, we cannot ''arrest our way out of the terrorist threat we face, and nor [can we]...protect ourselves physically to the point where the threat is mitigated entirely''.  Prevent, in short, was a 'strategy to stop people becoming terrorists',[1] and towards this end, considerable efforts were made to understand and frustrate the process of radicalisation.

The new version of Prevent, requested by the Home Secretary in November 2010 and finally published on 7 June 2011, attempted to redefine how this objective might best be achieved. Distancing itself from the supposedly in-effective approach of the previous government, and employing David Cameron's speech to the 2011 Munich Security conference as its leitmotif, it has placed an explicit emphasis on countering those ideas which underpin and enable radicalisation.  '[P]reventing terrorism', the strategy argues, 'will mean challenging extremist (and non-violent) ideas that are also part of a terrorist ideology'.[2]

British universities are heavily implicated in this revised Prevent agenda.  It argues that a significant proportion of those convicted of Al-Qa'ida-associated terrorist offences in the UK have attended a further or higher education institution, and that a number of these individuals became sympathetic to terrorism during their time as students.  Within this bracket they include Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian-born student who, it is suggested (and contested), came to support Al-Qa'ida during his time at University College London, and subsequently attempted to detonate a bomb on an aircraft on Christmas Day 2009.[3]

Universities have come to occupy a central position in the debate around radicalisation because, the Prevent strategy argues, they are institutions which attract young, impressionable and potentially vulnerable individuals, and because they can, in the absence of appropriate checks, constitute 'ungoverned spaces' which are open to exploitation by extremist ideologues.  Indeed, the report states that 'there is unambiguous evidence to indicate that some extremist organisations... target specific universities and colleges...with the objective of radicalising and recruiting students'.[4]  With this being so, it argues that both the universities and their Islamic societies have a particular responsibility to identify students which might be susceptible to radicalisation, and to prevent individuals who promote and encourage extremist views from gaining a platform at universities. 

Rooting out radicalisation in campus

It is precisely in this sense that the new Prevent strategy is seeking to engage in a battle of ideas.  In contradistinction to its previous incarnations, and in the hope of getting to the 'root' of the problem, Prevent 2011 will seek to challenge all forms of extremist ideology - not only those which advocate violence.  The argument is premised on the idea that ideological extremism can create and atmosphere conducive to radicalisation, and indeed, that extremist views provide the backdrop against which vulnerable individuals can come to support terrorism.       

Unsurprisingly, this has vastly expanded the remit of Prevent, to the effect that universities, where free speech and open debate are encouraged, will now be considered as key 'radicalising locations', or rather, places where extremist views are most likely to be aired.  This line of argument is drawn explicitly from the findings of the Centre for Social Cohesion (CSC),[5] a right-wing think tank which has argued that in recent years, Islamic societies within British universities have regularly played host to organisations such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Al-Muhajiroun - groups which now fall squarely within the Governments definition of 'extremist'.[6]  It is hoped that removing the presence of these groups from UK campuses will go some way in removing the prevalence of ideological extremism amongst younger sections of the Muslim community - something which, the CSC has controversially argued, exists to a far greater degree than is usually believed to be the case.[7]

For universities, however, the issue of radicalisation is nothing new, and as the 2011 report from the representative body Universities UK emphasised, a majority of British institutions have already made extensive efforts support the Prevent agenda.[8]  Indeed, this engagement comes not only in the form of collaborating with the police to indentify vulnerable individuals, but also in prohibiting certain events - often linked to extremism - from taking place within the university.  Moreover, the National Union of Students (NUS) has, since the mid-1990s, sought to implement a 'no platform policy' across all universities, a measure intended to stop extremist individuals and groups from speaking on UK campuses.  Originally conceived to challenge the presence of the British National Party, the 'no platform policy' is predicated on the idea that  'racial and religious hate crimes increase when speakers with extremely racist or fascist views are actively given a high-profile platform and this presents a very real risk to students.'[9]  This policy has since been applied, although not by all universities, to Islamist groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir, and can be seen as a central aspect in the effort of student groups to counter the presence of extremism on campus.

Crucially, however, the Government feels that these efforts are insufficient, with the Home secretary even accusing some universities of complacency around the dangers of student radicalisation.[10]  To be sure, this argument stems from the fact that universities have tended to see their role in counter-radicalisation in terms of their constant legal obligation to student safety - balanced against their duty protect free speech and intellectual enquiry -  rather than on the basis of a specific definition of which views are/are not acceptable -  something which invariably changes with the government of the time.  Moreover, and despite the efforts of the NUS, the Prevent strategy has also reserved criticism for Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS), which represents Islamic Societies from UK universities on a national basis.  As the strategy argues, 'FOSIS has not always fully challenged terrorist and extremist ideology within the higher and further education sectors,' and should, in response, deepen its engagement with the NUS - and presumably its no platform policy - whilst taking 'a clear and unequivocal position against extremism and terrorism'. [11]  

A number of dynamics are at work which pose particular problems for the implementation of Prevent. On the one hand, the government has placed universities squarely at the heart of the its new agenda, and has designated them a key institution in tackling the problem of radicalisation.  The government wants them to become the frontline in the battle against extremist ideas, and indeed, undertake effective oversight to ensure that vulnerable individuals will be identified and supported.  On the other hand, however, universities are reluctant to accept the charge of complacency, and by extension, will be likely to resist calls for them to redouble their efforts and increase their rate of intervention.  This is true for both universities leaders [12] and student-run groups such as FOSIS, whose President, Nabil Ahmed, has denied such assertions.[13] 

In the battle of ideas, where the Government is drawing a clear distinction between which beliefs are/are not acceptable, or which views should/should not be tolerated, the expectation will be that those identified as key partners, and in particular universities, will operate according to this definition.  This will mean that universities and student societies must accept the logic behind the governments struggle against all forms of extremism, and in turn, work to deny these ideologies a platform.  Such a move would more than likely come in the form a 'no platform policy', and indeed, proactive measures to silence those views which lay the foundations for radicalisation.

With the previous version of Prevent drawing the line between violent and non-violent ideologies, principled agreement was certainly easier to come by, as the universities' duty-of-care priorities were more closely aligned with the government's focus on preventing violent extremism.  Now, however, universities will be expected to cooperate on the basis that some beliefs, despite being non-violent, should be silenced - something which will be difficult for institutions usually prized for the intellectual freedoms they embody.  To be sure, the success of this latest counter-radicalisation programme will depend on the credibility of the effort to counter certain ideas, and the willingness of universities to accept their expanded role in this struggle.

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not nessecarily reflect thos of RUSI.


[1] Charles Farr, Communities and Local Government Committee: Evidence, Tuesday 19 January 2010.

[2] Prevent Strategy, HM Government, June 2011, p. 6.

[3] Ibid., p. 73.  In contrast, however, an inquiry into the case of Abdulmtallab, commissioned by UCL and headed by Dame Fiona Caldicott, concluded "that there is no evidence to suggest either that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was radicalised while a student at UCL or that conditions at UCL during that time or subsequently are conducive to the radicalisation of students." See: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab: Report to UCL Council of independent inquiry panel (September 2010), p.3.  Available here:

[4] HM Government, June 2011, p. 73.

[5] Centre for Social Cohesion (2010), Radical Islam on UK Campuses: A comprehensive list of extremist speakers at UK universities'. London: Centre for Social Cohesion.

[6] 'Extremism is vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also include in our definition of extremism calls for the death of members of our armed forces, whether in this country or overseas'. Prevent Strategy, HM Government, June 2011, p. 107.

[7] John Thorne and Hannah Stuart (2008), Islam on Campus. A Survey of UK Student Opinions, London: Centre for Social Cohesion.

[8] Universities UK (2011), Freedom of Speech on Campus: Rights and Responsibilities in UK Universities. London: Universities UK.

[9] See, for example, Leeds University Union (2008), Policy Document 07/08, p. 92.  Available here:

[10] Duncan Gardham, 'Universities 'complacent' over Islamic radicals, Theresa May warns', The Telegraph, 5 June 2011.

[11] Prevent Strategy, HM Government, June 2011, p. 74.

[12] See Universities UK (2011), Freedom of Speech on Campus: Rights and Responsibilities in UK Universities. London: Universities UK.

[13] FOSIS Press release, FOSIS expresses concern with Home Secretary's comments, 6 June 2011.  Available here:


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