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‘Talking back’ to the securitisation of higher education classrooms

Jennifer Robson, Senior Lecturer at University of East London Ruth Hunt, Senior Lecturer at University of East London

The alignment of education with actions to prevent radicalisation of young people is a global phenomenon and is reflected in the plethora of initiatives emerging from trans-European networks such as the Radicalisation Awareness Network. However, the United Kingdom is unique in its approach by placing specific legal responsibility for preventing radicalisation on education institutions (see Busher & Jerome, 2020).

In England, government counter-terrorism legislation places lecturers in higher education (HE) in a complex position. Introduced in 2015, Section 26 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act (CTSA) compels lecturers to have due regard to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. Known as the ‘Prevent Duty’ (hereafter Prevent) this act of public policy embedded the functions of state security into the everyday roles of lecturers in HE through structures of welfare and safeguarding. Critiquing Prevent as a panoptic scheme (Foucault, 1991) reveals the ways in which the formal structures of state security govern the actions of educators and learners. Lecturers are deputised into performing state counter-terrorism functions in their classrooms through surveillance and reporting of students deemed at risk of radicalisation (Whiting et al., 2020). Concerns for state security have entered the pedagogical space where students are constructed as risky subjects and academic debate about counter-terrorism generates risky knowledge (Danvers, 2021).

Higher education, together with other sectors of education in England, awaits the outcome of the government’s Independent Review of Prevent and remains hopeful that the review has listened to the multifarious critiques by academics (see for example Awan, 2018) and civic society organisations such as the People’s Review of Prevent. While the policy architecture weaves counter-terrorism strategy within the functions of higher education, a question remains as to how lecturers might address the troubling implications of Prevent in their classrooms. Lecturers in HE may have partial and fragmentary knowledge of the reach of Prevent into their classroom, with some awareness of the problematic implications for their pedagogy (Robson & Hunt, 2021). As a political act (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009) practitioner enquiry enables lecturers to talk back (Hines & Conner-Zachocki, 2015) to the troubling practices of surveillance imposed by Prevent. Lecturers can explore the assumptions which underpin their practice and gain awareness of how pedagogy may stifle debate in the academic study of the contentious topic of counter-terrorism strategy.

‘While the policy architecture weaves counter-terrorism strategy within the functions of higher education, a question remains as to how lecturers might address the troubling implications of Prevent in their classrooms.’

A recent practitioner enquiry (Robson & Hunt, 2021) revealed how lecturers reframed student responses such as silence in the classroom as an exercise of agency or act of resistance. In this study practitioner enquiry allowed for the identification of actionable knowledge about teaching and learning, leading to pedagogical decisions to create safe academic spaces in which to examine the risky knowledge of terrorism and radicalisation. Students had opportunities to construct knowledges of Prevent by applying theory as an analytical tool to dispassionately critique state counter-terrorism policy and give visibility to the ways in which it governs their academic lives. Students exercised agency in determining the extent of personal knowledges, and experiences of Prevent shared in class and lecturers respected this strategy of self-censoring and self-editing as a means of students setting a boundary between the academic study of Prevent and their private lives. Through practitioner enquiry, lecturers can identify realisable pedagogical strategies within their classrooms that enable students to debate government counter-terrorism policy without fear of potential negative consequences.

Whatever the outcome of the independent review, in England lecturers can talk back through practitioner enquiry to limit the power of this panoptic scheme within their classrooms. While existing European education networks build practitioners’ capacity to address radicalisation, we suggest an equally important task is exchanging knowledge about the complex ways in which practitioners and pedagogies in a range of education institutions are positioned by governments’ counter-terrorism strategies.


References

Awan, I. (2018, July 2). How lecturers are pushing back against counter-terrorism creep into universities. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/how-lecturers-are-pushing-back-against-counter-terrorism-creep-into-universities-93998 

Busher, J., Jerome, L. (2020). Introduction. In J. Busher & L. Jerome (Eds.) The Prevent Duty in Education. Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-45559-0_1

Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. (2009). Inquiry as stance: Practitioner research for the next generation. Teachers College Press.

Danvers, E. (2021). Prevent/ing critical thinking? The pedagogical impacts of Prevent in UK higher education. Teaching in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2021.1872533

Foucault, M. (1991). Discipline and punish. The birth of the prison. Penguin. (Original work published 1975)

Hines, M. B., & Conner-Zachocki, J. (2015). Using practitioner inquiry within and against large-scale educational reform. Teacher Development, 19(3), 344–364. https://doi.org/10.1080/13664530.2015.1040555

Robson, J., & Hunt, R. (2021). Lecturing within the panoptic scheme of Prevent in an English university. Critical Studies on Terrorism, 14(4), 578–597. https://doi.org/10.1080/17539153.2021.1996935

Whiting, A., Campbell, B., Spiller, K., & Awan, I. (2020). The Prevent duty in UK higher education: Insights from freedom of information requests. British Journal of Politics & International Relations, 23(3), 513–532. https://doi.org/10.1177/1369148120968520

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