Challenging the Prevent Agenda


When people talk about the ‘Prevent duty’ they are referring to Section 26 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 20151 which contains a duty on specified authorities, including colleges and universities, to have ‘due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’. This came into force on 1 July 2015 for much of the public sector, including schools, NHS trusts, local authorities, child minders and probation services. Following some controversy over plans to ban outside speakers seen as “extremist”, the revised guidelines for HE and FE universities and colleges came into effect on 21 September. The government has advised that relevant employers must provide training to staff in the implementation of the Prevent duty. This is being rolled out across the public sector. Training ranges from e-learning, private or in-house trainers, to a government DVD and script based training programme known as WRAP (workshop to raise awareness of Prevent).

The issue of the government’s Prevent strategy is increasingly important for workers. Prevent is a key component of the government’s 2011 anti-terror strategy known as Contest. It builds on the previous Prevent strategy brought in by Tony Blair’s government after the London bombings in 2005. It has been widely criticised for casting all Muslims as a ‘suspect community’.

There has been widespread opposition to the Prevent strategy, its underlying assumptions and its implementation. UCU and the NUS have campaigned over many years to stop lecturers and student unions being forced to spy on their Muslim students. The TUC this year passed policy opposed to Prevent. Other unions with policy opposed to Prevent include UCU, NUT and the NUS. Many Muslim organisations and civil rights groups, as well as Stop the War, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Stand Up to Racism have also spoken out against Prevent.

At its 2015 Congress, UCU passed policy which set out the following objections to the Prevent duty:

  • [it] seriously threatens academic freedom and freedom of speech
  • the broad definition of terrorism will stifle campus activism
  • the intention to force our members to be involved in the racist labelling of students is unacceptable
  • the Prevent Agenda will force our members to spy on our learners, is discriminatory towards Muslims, and legitimises Islamophobia and xenophobia, encouraging racist views to be publicised and normalised within society
  • the monitoring of Muslim students will destroy the trust needed for a safe and supportive learning environment and encourage discrimination against BME and Muslim staff and students
  • the Prevent agenda will help racist parties such as UKIP to flourish.

At Congress, policy was also passed which called for a ‘national boycott’ of the Prevent duty. Congress was advised that such a boycott would be likely to be unlawful given that the Prevent duty is statutory and that its implementation is at institution level. However a commitment was given that the feasibility of branch boycotts where requested would be investigated as would the possibility that any legally constituted boycotts be coordinated.


The government has published distinct guidance for FE and HE and for all other affected sectors in England and Wales as well as separate guidance for Scotland. However, the arguments underpinning all of these are very similar, with the additional question in HE and FE of policing external speakers.

1. Defending British values?

Prevent centres on tackling what the government calls “non-violent extremism” –i.e. no actual violent act may have been considered or admired. The government defines extremism as “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.”

• This definition opens up a very ambiguous definition of extremism and includes expressions of political views that may not involve any invocation or support of violence.

• The idea that these values are intrinsically British –and not shared by others—is racist.

• It is pure hypocrisy to suggest that the British state has respected these values, given what is known of Britain’s foreign policy (Iraq, Ireland, Afghanistan, drone strikes in Syria, colonialism) and Britain’s domestic policy (racism throughout the criminal justice system). This definition opens the Prevent powers to be used against political dissent that has nothing to do with terrorism (see below).

2. Prevent ignores the context of war and racism

The government model of radicalisation is based on a “conveyor belt” which involves vulnerable individuals being groomed by radical clerics / the internet / other associates and in which non-violent extremism leads to violent extremism and therefore to acts of terrorism. This deliberately ignores the context of foreign policy, racism and war. In fact attempts to give political context are themselves cast as giving cover to terrorists in the form of justifying grievances. As John Prescott has said: “When I hear people talking about how people are radicalised, young Muslims. I’ll tell you how they are radicalised. Every time they watch the television where their families are worried, their kids are being killed and murdered and rockets firing on all these people, that’s what radicalises them.” Even MI5 has concluded that there is no straightforward single pathway to terrorism.

3. Prevent targets Muslims

Most of the training packages for Prevent stress that it is about targeting all forms of terrorism, not just “Muslim extremism”. The Home Office’s WRAP DVD dwells at length on the case of a far right activist. However in practice Prevent overwhelmingly targets Muslims.

Muslims made up 90 percent of those referred to Prevent’s anti-radicalisation programme Channel between 2007 and 2010, despite being less than 5 percent of the population.

• Prevent encourages racial profiling: Three schools in Barnsley, an area with a high level of EDL activity, published risk assessments earlier this year that stated that the schools were not prone to radicalisation and extremism as “cohort of pupils are white British majority” and many pupils “take a keen interest in British military work”. They also stated that “Staff continue to monitor BME (black and minority ethnic] cohort”. The risk assessments were taken from a template approved by the Prevent team at South Yorkshire police.

• The Prevent guidance specifies that it regards groups in Syria and Iraq and those associated with Al-Qaida as a greater threat than far right terrorism. It describes “Islamic extremists” who “regard Western intervention in Muslim-majority countries as a ‘war with Islam’, creating a narrative of ‘them and us’.” While many on the left don’t agree that western foreign policy is driven by a war on Muslims, it is not surprising that many do see the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine in this way–and we must defend those with this view as a legitimate part of the anti-war and pro-Palestine movement.

• Prevent feeds wider racism. As UCU argues, Prevent “is discriminatory towards Muslims, and legitimises Islamophobia and xenophobia, encouraging racist views to be publicised and normalised within society..”

4. Safeguarding the vulnerable?

Much of the Prevent duty is being dressed up as a form of safeguarding – helping people who may be vulnerable to radicalisation. Many employers are incorporating the Prevent duty into their existing safeguarding procedures. Much training also asks public sector workers to look for signs of “vulnerability” and “radicalisation” in colleagues—in other words to be suspicious of each other. Some of the risk factors specified include:

Substance and alcohol misuse • Peer pressure • Influence from older people or via the Internet • Bullying • Crime and anti-social behaviour • Domestic violence • Family tensions • Race/hate crime • Lack of self esteem or identity • Grievances (personal or political) • Migration

• This encompasses a huge number of people who are not in any way connected to terrorism or “extremism”. So the perceived risk of radicalisation is extremely subjective and open to abuse. This breeds an atmosphere of suspicion and provides an almost endless list of identifiers that can be used to label suspect individuals or groups (i.e. Muslims).

• This approach potentially deters children and other vulnerable people from seeking help, support or medical advice for fear of being labelled as at risk of radicalisation.

• Many inappropriate referrals are being made to Channel: 80 percent of Channel referrals between 2006 and 2013 were eventually rejected by Channel panels, showing that many referrers are finding threats where none exist.

5. Preventing dissent

There are many recorded instances of how Prevent is being used to crack down on dissent:
Lancaster university’s student union president was targeted by police for displaying pro-Palestinian posters in her office.
• Prevent officers were involved in shutting down a conference on Islamophobia at Birkbeck university in December 2014.
Police in West Yorkshire told over 100 teachers attending Prevent training that they should consider environmental protesters, anti-fracking campaigners and anti-capitalists as potential extremists, citing Green MP Caroline Lucas as an example.
• In The Muslims Are Coming, Arun Kundnani describes how a teenager was targeted by Channel after attending a pro-Palestinian demo and warned to keep away from his new associates – who were revolutionary socialists, not radical Muslims.

6. Crushing open debate

The MCB reports numerous examples of children being afraid to discuss issues at school for fear of being labelled extremists as well as parents trying to coach their children not to speak about their beliefs or religious practices in public.
Many academics and others have argued that Prevent undermines free speech and shuts down debate, therefore making us all less safe.


This duty will be applied and policed in different ways in FE and HE respectively. It is important for branches to start engaging immediately with this as although there are many aspects of the Prevent duty which remain unclear, many colleges and universities are already developing guidance.

There is an excellent and comprehensive UCU briefing designed to allow branches to engage with that process. This briefing contains a model statement to be passed by members at branch meetings, and a model letter for branches to send to management to being the process of challenging the Prevent duty.


As a college/university and union we are proud of our commitment to, and record of, challenging any expression of prejudice or discrimination directed against any group or individual (whether in form of racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism; attitudes to sexuality, gender or disability. Where any safeguarding or more general duty of care concern is raised that may put a student or other persons at risk of harm, there are established procedures of prompt referral which every member of staff should be aware of and should be able to act on accordingly. In addition:

It is essential that in order to explore views and opinions and where necessary, challenge them, we actively promote a climate of free discussion and debate. There should be no fear that this will incur suspicion, or limit on free expression within the boundaries of our equality and diversity policy and disciplinary codes on harassment or abuse.

It is essential that legitimate political opinions expressed by staff or students are not in any way regarded as ‘extreme’ or legitimising ‘extremism’. In the context of ‘Prevent’, it is perfectly legitimate for example, to criticise government foreign policy; to criticise the wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan; to express support for Palestinian rights or to express either support for or opposition to Israel. Neither is it extreme or illegitimate to hold that the rise of terrorism or hostility to western governments is a direct result of these policies. One may agree or disagree with such views, however they form part of legitimate discussion and debate; they are widespread in the political and academic sphere and in society at large. They are neither ‘extreme’, nor should they be presented as ‘excusing’ or providing cover
for ‘extremism’ or acts of violence or terror.

Finally, the insistence on freedom of expression and free debate, within the boundaries of established policies and codes of behaviour, is paramount. Therefore sufficient time for discussion, debate and respectful exchange of views is essential in any forum in which ‘Prevent’ is discussed or presented. Everyone is entitled to their
own political view or opinion but no-one should privilege one view over that of others, or present one political explanation as ‘expert’ or not subject to challenge.

All presenters in ‘Prevent’ forums, whether internal or external, should be made aware of these principles and be expected to abide by them

XXXX UCU resolves to present the above to the Senior Leadership team and at our negotiating forum, as an agreed set of principles by which any discussion or training on Prevent be conducted.

Branches are asked to do three things now:

1. Establish branch policy on the Prevent duty. If you use the model policy make sure it reflects your local and sector circumstances as well as the union’s national position. Make sure members are also aware of UCU’s fundamental opposition to the Prevent duty. If you need advice on this contact your regional official.

2. Write to your management seeking information on how they intend to implement the Prevent duty, and establish the issue as an item for ongoing consultation/negotiation.

3. Review the answers given and consult with members and your regional official as to whether you should seek to ballot on a boycott as discussed by UCU Congress.

A template letter is set out in the briefing which you can amend to suit local circumstance and send to your management. Branches should note that sending the model letter or a close variant is likely to be the critical first step in establishing the basis for a lawful boycott.

Further reading:

Annex 2 of the following report:

Interesting points about the misuse of Prevent strategies

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