Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

UK universities' new duty to prevent extremism on campus comes into force next week

Out-Law News | 17 Sep 2015 | 4:54 pm | 2 min. read

A new legal duty on UK universities to take steps to prevent those with extremist views from radicalising their students will come into force within days, the prime minister has announced.

New guidance, applicable to universities and colleges in England and Wales, will take effect on Monday, 21 September. Separate guidance was been produced for institutions in Scotland. The new rules will require institutions to establish IT policies, staff training and student welfare programmes with a focus on recognising and responding to the risks of radicalisation. They will also be required to put into place oversight procedures for visiting speakers and to prevent unlawful gender segregation at events on campus.

UK prime minister David Cameron said that the new rules were "not oppressing free speech or stifling academic freedom", but 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 said.

The new 'prevent' duty and guidance emerged from the work of the Prime Minister's Extremism Taskforce, which was established in summer 2013 to recommend practical means of fighting extremism. Section 26 of the 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act gives the Home Office the power to require "specified authorities" to develop guidance which will help it comply with its legal requirement to have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.

At least 70 events featuring speakers known to the government for promoting rhetoric that aimed to "undermine core British values" such as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and respect and tolerance for other faiths and belief systems were held on university campuses in 2014, according to the government's new 'Extremism Analysis Unit'. The government said that it was also concerned that a "disproportionately high number" of those arrested for terrorism-related offences or found to be travelling to join terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq were young people.

In England, compliance with the new duty will be monitored by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) as lead regulator for higher education in England. Continued compliance failures could ultimately result in a court order, according to the government's announcement. The government has also written to the National Union of Students (NUS) urging it to get behind the changes after it voted to oppose them at its national conference in April. The NUS has argued that the new rules are "intrusive" and "a significant threat to civil liberties and freedom of speech on campuses".

Universities law expert Tara Hepworth of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that university governing bodies had the "difficult task" ahead of balancing the new 'prevent' duty with "existing duties such as freedom of speech, human rights and public order".

"In accordance with the government's 'prevent' guidance, institutions will need to take this opportunity to conduct a risk assessment and put an action plan in place to ensure that their policies for campus and student welfare, the physical management of the institution's estate and the relationships with external bodies and community groups all function in accordance with the institution's new and existing duties," she said.