St John's initially submitted the total number of students, which was CUSU's suggested option, but the OfS asked them to refine their submissionSimon Lock

Data obtained by Varsity shows that colleges took vastly different approaches in the student welfare data submitted to the Office for Students’ (OfS) controversial Prevent return. This was the first data return since changes to submission requirements obliged institutions to provide information on the number of students accessing welfare services.

Cambridge colleges were required to submit their Prevent accountability and data return [ADR] for a deadline of 3rd December 2018, the first ADR since the OfS changed submission requirements in June 2018. Following this change, colleges, and all higher education institutions in the UK, were asked to provide the ‘number of welfare cases referred for specialist advice and support’ between 1st August 2017 and 31 July 2018.

Prevent is one of four strands of the UK counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST, which is tasked with preventing extremist radicalisation.

Prevent obliges public bodies, including universities, to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. This ‘Prevent duty’ mandates public sector organisations to report any individuals who exhibit signs of radicalisation.

The ADR is used by the OfS as an indicator of an institution’s compliance with the Prevent duty.

Freedom of Information requests submitted by Varsity reveal that colleges took vastly divergent approaches in their individual ADR’s.

The OfS’s new submission requirements are a response to the most recent revision of CONTEST. The OfS updated its monitoring framework for Prevent in Higher Education in June 2018, to now reflect CONTEST’s emphasis on safeguarding, which includes requiring Prevent to be integrated into welfare support systems.

New submission requirements now request that higher education institutions provide data on the number of students accessing welfare services, specifically: “the number of cases in which specialist staff have made an intervention, either through a central student service or a nominated welfare or safeguarding lead” and not “self-referrals”.

Most higher education institutions have no option but to provide an ADR of data aggregated across their entire organisation. However, for the purposes of the OfS ADR, Cambridge colleges are autonomous higher education bodies, so therefore report their ADR independently.

The OfS claim that “there is no straightforward measure of how well a provider is implementing the Prevent duty”, and therefore propose that the number of welfare cases “is a useful proxy”, which can assure “that providers are actively implementing procedures that allow them to identify and act on Prevent-related returns”.

An OfS spokesperson told Varsity that the new requirement seeks “to provide assurance that welfare procedures are in operation in the absence of any Prevent-related welfare concerns”.

Last term, the OfS’s new ADR requirements were criticised in an open letter, led by CUSU and co-signed by the Graduate Union Executive Committee and 21 college-based student bodies. The letter, which was released on in late November, criticised the OfS’s regulatory changes as a “serious encroachment […] into welfare provision”.

This letter encouraged colleges to resist the OfS’s new requirements. It argued that requiring that “colleges include all data about welfare support for students as part of their annual report on Prevent, whether or not those welfare cases relate to Prevent” was an “unacceptable overreach”. The letter warned that this may “add to the already deeply worrying impacts of Prevent on the experiences of Muslim and BME students,” while “a culture of surveillance and suspicion must be kept out of mental health and welfare support.”

Rather than respond to the ADR with the number of welfare cases referred for specialist advice and support, the CUSU-led open letter encouraged colleges to submit “all tutorial contact as a welfare case for the purposes of the numerical data return, rather than singling out the number of students who access mental health support or the counselling service”.

This would mean listing the full number of students in a College in each ADR, which the letter claimed would be the “least harmful way” for colleges to resist the new requirements.

30 of the University’s 31 constituent colleges gave responses to Varsity’s questions, while Clare claimed exceptions under the conditions of the Freedom of Information Act.

Seven colleges – Downing, Jesus, St. Edmunds, Newnham, Peterhouse, Robinson and Wolfson – claimed that the CUSU letter was published after their College Council or Governing Body meeting, and they did not follow the recommendations made in this letter, released on the 28th November.

Both St. Catharine’s and Emmanuel Colleges claimed to be unaware of the CUSU letter, and both estimated the number of welfare cases.

Certain colleges, despite awareness, refused to follow the recommendations of the CUSU letter.

Churchill estimated the number of welfare cases because they “felt that it was the only approach that the OfS would accept”. Gonville and Caius College told Varsity that while the college “has sympathy with much of the CUSU position on the OfS’s questions”,  it must “observe its legal obligations to provide information required by regulators”. Girton, meanwhile, “was aware that some colleges were counting all tutorial contact as a welfare case for the numerical data return”, but said, however, that “such a return was not what was requested”.

Some colleges, however, did indeed follow the open letter’s request. Five – Corpus Christi, Darwin, Fitzwilliam, Homerton and Pembroke –  submitted the number of all college members due to CUSU’s open letter. Trinity Hall submitted the large figure of 626, but said that the open letter was not a factor in their decision. It is possible that other colleges, which submitted notably large figures may have unintentionally co-operated with the open letter’s request.

St. John’s College initially submitted the number 953, which included all students, in line with the CUSU-letter’s recommendation. However, the OfS asked for their submission to be revised in order “to reflect a more disaggregated figure under the welfare cases managed data set; for example, the number of cases referred to the senior tutor”.

When asked for further detail about this request, a spokesperson for the OfS responded: “We don't routinely provide comment to the media on cases at specific universities.”

Several colleges questioned the relevance of welfare data to the ADR. Gonville and Caius claimed to “not see that there is any obvious relationship”  between referrals to specialist services and Prevent issues.

Colleges were able to submit a comment alongside the numerical value of welfare cases. Some colleges used this to criticise the relevance of ADR’s new submission requirements to the Prevent duty, even if they had nonetheless complied. Hughes Hall commented that welfare data “is not a matter of ‘Prevent duty monitoring’… nor even related to it”. Robinson similarly stated “we have used our best endeavours to comply with this request but do not accept that it obviously and directly relates to the College’s Prevent Duty”.

Selwyn, although complying with the ADR request, complained that determining the number of welfare cases was “not… straightforward” because of multiple welfare support points, including University Mental Health advisors, the University Counselling Service, GP surgeries and intermission procedures.

Another recurring complaint was that welfare data had to be recalled retrospectively. Data was requested for the period from August 2017 to July 2018, yet institutions were not informed of this requirement until the June 2018 revision of the OfS monitoring framework.


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Fitzwilliam’s comment stated that the “retrospective request presents a practical difficulty since these data were not collected at the time and cannot be reconstructed accurately”. King’s commented that “in order to provide this data in a more accurate form it is essential that we know that it will be required before the start of the reporting period”.

Retrospective reporting meant that for colleges which provided a numerical value in line with the OfS request, figures had to be estimated. This often included asking College tutors to estimate the number of students they referred to welfare services or estimates based on welfare referrals in the preceding month extrapolated to calculate a pro-rata value.

Peterhouse refused to answer the question ‘number of welfare cases referred for specialist advice and support’, claiming that “the distinction between referral and self-referral [is] problematic”.

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