Prevent, Protect, Preserve
Like many of you reading this blog I was first attracted to life at university by the thought of being able to debate and challenge new ideas and to acquire new knowledge that would challenge and sift my own thinking in a safe environment where I could grow and mature as a young adult. Now that I have become a Vice-Chancellor it is good to see that culture is as strong as ever. Warwick affirms in its Strategy the core value that “Ours is a lively university community that encourages and challenges ideas, promotes dignity, respect, health and well-being, and makes Warwick welcoming”.
On taking up my new role I have had many opportunities to take time to listen to our student and staff community debate several key issues currently facing higher education institutions today.
One of those issues is the set of legal obligations we now have as part of our Prevent duty. The Prevent duty requires the University to conduct itself in ways to seek to prevent anyone in our community or on our campus preparing, supporting or encouraging others into acts of terrorism. That aim, surely, is one around which we can have consensus. However where that consensus breaks down is over the means by which this is to be operationalised. Some fear that it may make universities into agents of surveillance; some suggest that the approach could be, in practice, Islamophobic. These are incredibly important and intense issues.
I have had the opportunity to read letters and other submissions and to listen to debate on the topic at our Assembly, our Students’ Union, and elsewhere. By its very nature that environment of debate and challenge will never provide complete unanimity of view on any issue. And on this issue, there are some very strongly held views. However it has helped form and articulate a strong view that on our campus, rather than simply shaping how we approach the word ‘prevent’ we should instead focus much more on the words preserve and protect.
Of course, we have a duty to fulfil our legal obligations in regard to Prevent. However if we focus on preserving all that is good about our current university system and protecting and safeguarding the wellbeing of our staff and students so that they can safely thrive in that system, then these “new” legal duties might perhaps be met without conflict with our current culture. How then should universities react to our new Prevent duty?
- Firstly we should simply continue to do what we do best. For instance the Prevent Duty Guidance calls us to ensure that “speakers with extremist views….are challenged with opposing views”. That sounds to me like a description of almost every debate, seminar or talk that happens at a university. Our own Regulation 29 already details at length how we at Warwick “ensure that freedom of speech is secured within the law”.
- Secondly we need to remind policy makers, the public, and our own communities that, for the most part, this isn’t actually “new”. In fact the Government’s own Prevent Duty Guidance document refers several times to the fact that many of the things it requires us to do we have actually been doing for a long, long time in order to preserve freedom of debate, and to protect our students.
- Thirdly we need to take pains to explain more to policy makers and the public what universities already do that meets these “new” legal duties. For instance The Prevent Duty Guidance requires us to review a vast range of our procedures and that we will be assessed on our compliance with these requirements. Review of procedures and compliance with them are at the heart of all regulatory regimes within which universities in the UK exist; and as we know, there are a very large number of these regimes.
- Fourthly building on that point of reminding people who we are, and what we are actually very good at already, on the topic of training, who better than an education organisation to decide who needs training, on what, and when? At Warwick we have always had a strong ethos on safeguarding with proactive teams and individuals providing frontline support to students such as personal tutors, student support, and our residential life team. Our training focus will continue to be on those frontline staff (and limited to them), to help them support our students.
- As we are required to do by law, we have created and submitted an Action Plan for review by HEFCE. Warwick’s Senate Steering Committee has reflected, reviewed and revised our Prevent Action Plan listening to the debate within our University community, and specifically, the Assembly motion and debate. As that action plan will be a living, evolving document, as the Accountable Officer under the Prevent legislation, my aim is to establish a small reference group to advise me on the level of appropriate compliance for our university. I will be writing to people who spoke in the Assembly, to experts, to student representatives. In this way, in part, we will be able to continue to challenge and develop policy in this contentious area.
- And lastly, I come back to what attracted me to be part of a University, that it’s a safe place to acquire knowledge and to debate and challenge that knowledge. We will have views as an institution, and we will certainly have a great many views as individuals. However all have a duty to use knowledge to continually challenge current thinking, within the law, in order to have a positive impact on our society. There can be relatively few current issues where it is more crucial for us to have such an impact. The passion of the debate on this topic and the seemingly endless parade of horror stories in our news headlines both dramatically underscore the fact that we must not fail to get the balance right on how we work together to approach this issue.