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The ‘Updated framework for the monitoring of the Prevent duty in higher education in England’ (HEFCE 2016/24), published in September 2016, stated HEFCE’s commitment to working with Government, providers and key sector stakeholders to develop the Prevent agenda further. In this publication, HEFCE agreed to co-ordinate a series of workshops to facilitate the sharing of practice across key areas of the duty. These workshops are currently running.

We continue to expect that the duty is implemented proportionately and reflects the provider’s context. This work therefore aims to give providers an opportunity to network with colleagues who have similar operational responsibilities, to share effective practice in different contexts, and to identify areas whether further support and guidance would be beneficial.

Information Technology

There are only two specific IT requirements detailed in the Prevent duty and associated guidance: consideration of the use of filters as part of an overall strategy to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism, and implementation of clear policies and processes for accessing sensitive or extremist-related material for legitimate research.

It has become apparent, through engagement and our initial phase of monitoring activity, that while a large number of providers have mechanisms already in place to manage access to the internet for legitimate research purposes, some providers are still deciding whether or not to implement web filtering.

In particular, providers told us that they were keen to ensure they were implementing the duty to the best of their ability while upholding academic freedom, and many were exploring the pros and cons of filtering. This area continues to present itself as a theme in the annual reports submitted recently by HEFCE-funded providers and alternative providers.

What works’ workshops

We therefore decided to host two workshops focusing on these two specific IT-related points. A total of 125 representatives across the higher education sector attended the events in London and Birmingham.

The workshops featured presentations from the Counter-Terrorism Internet Referral Unit (CTIRU), from Jisc and from two providers that have adopted different approaches to filtering and managing access to sensitive material. They included a facilitated round-table discussion, and concluded with a Q&A session with an expert panel.

The CTIRU and Jisc presentations provided an overview of current threats and risks, and responses to them. These included training provision, Jisc subscriber resources and different approaches to web filtering and monitoring.

The case study providers talked through their different experiences including some of the considerations that had been made and the subsequent impacts of their decisions on their learning communities. Each provider’s representative was asked to explain their rationale and decisions, and what alternatives were explored, if any; to illustrate cross-institutional involvement in decision-making; and to tell us how they had reviewed, or intended to review, the effectiveness of the processes and policies once implemented.

The aim of the case study presentations was to illustrate similarities and differences in approaches, and to highlight the way decisions have been taken on the basis of the provider’s individual context.

The roundtable discussion was an opportunity for practitioners and those with operational responsibility to discuss and share practice further. It also presented an opportunity for attendees to talk about the barriers to doing this well.

Some of the ongoing challenges that were highlighted included: concerns regarding external information-sharing, in terms of who to contact and what would happen with the information; a perception that some of the language in the duty was ambiguous; cost and resource implications; access to guidance only available via a subscription model; staff and students’ ability to access other networks via their own devices; social media; confusion over what was and was not permissible; and the involvement and engagement of senior management.

Attendees were asked what more HEFCE, the Department for Education and the Home Office could do to support the sector. Suggestions included facilitating an IT forum or future networking opportunities, and clearer guidance about what should and should not be filtered.

Next steps

HEFCE will continue to work with the Department for Education, the Home Office and other sector bodies to support the effective implementation of the duty. We will follow up on the discussion points from these workshops with relevant Prevent partners, publish a paper in the summer to address some of these ongoing issues, and develop a repository of case studies.

We will use the feedback from these events to refine future Prevent-related support. We are keen to share effective practice where possible, but would reiterate to providers that the duty must be implemented proportionately and reflect their individual context.

We will be running further workshops focused on welfare in April. Registration for these events is open. In the meantime, the Prevent team may be contacted by email at prevent@hefce.ac.uk.