IN 2015, the UK Government introduced the Prevent Duty, which obliges schools, colleges and universities to adopt systems for detecting signs of radicalisation that could draw students into terrorism. Is it working? An award-winning article by researchers at the University of Huddersfield casts doubt on its effectiveness.
Titled Radicalisation and higher education: Students’ understanding and experiences, the article is authored by Dr Catherine McGlynn and Dr Shaun McDaid, who are senior lecturers in politics. After appearing in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence, it is now announced as winner of the 2019 best publication award in the scientific paper category, bestowed by the Children’s Identity and Citizenship European Association.
The article argues that the Prevent Duty, which was originally developed in the prison system, is too confusing to apply and certainly not appropriate for a Higher Education setting.
Under the guidance scheme, academics are asked to watch for ‘signs’ of potential radicalisation based on the Extremism Risk Guidelines (ERG22+), a guidance tool which has been in use across Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service of England and Wales since 2011.
The signs or factors include “a need to redress injustice”, “the need for excitement, comradeship or adventure”, “transitional periods” and “over identification with a group, cause or ideology”, although the expression “over-identification” is never clearly defined.
Study Politics at Huddersfield
The authors criticise the factors as being too broad and not fit for purpose given that many young people, particularly in higher education, already display some of these indicators in the course of their everyday student lives and certainly not as part of extremist tendencies.
The papers states that only a few of the factors in the ERG22+ would be immediate cause for concern with regard to security. However, a larger concern would be the risk that people could be referred to the authorities with insufficient justification, and that the effects of such interventions could be harmful to them.
Understanding radicalisation as against extremism
To research the article, the authors conducted focus groups designed to elicit students’ understanding of radicalisation and gain insights into their experience of debating contentious issues such as identity, community cohesion and the causes of terrorism.
The article argues that students’ understanding of radicalisation is conflated with extremism and the authors explore students’ anxiety about debating these topics. The authors present data that challenges some of the assumptions underpinning counter-radicalisation policy in higher education, which are based on ideas of active grooming.
“We argue that this does not accord with students’ own experiences, as they regard themselves as discerning, critical thinkers rather than inherently vulnerable to manipulation by those espousing violent extremist views,” write Dr McGlynn and Dr McDaid.
One size fits all?
The ERG22+ was developed by psychologists working in the prisons system. It was based on their observation of a relatively limited number of extremist offenders in England and Wales and didn’t follow the usual conventions of an academic study.
It was originally intended that the ERG22+ would be deployed by those able to exercise structured professional judgement, but was rolled out at an almost societal level as the Prevent Duty, despite the limits of the sample it is based upon and the minimal training afforded to those who are required to apply the duty.
“This is not the fault of those who designed the guidance,” says Dr McDaid, “but it should have been given greater consideration before making it the basis of national policy.
“There is also an element of duplication because there is existing legislation under which any member of the public is obliged to report a security threat to the authorities. We think that’s probably more useful than the vagaries of the Prevent Duty and being asked to look at opinions and behaviours which may not be problematic at all,” he added.