Universities must ensure extremists are not ‘given free rein’

Prevent: institutions must not let platitudes about freedom of expression create an ‘illusion of debate’, says Rupert Sutton

October 9, 2015
Microphone on stage ahead of speech

As students returned to their studies this September, a report commissioned by the University of Westminster, after the revelation that the Islamic State executioner known as “Jihadi John” was a former student, was released – and detailed a damning indictment of the behaviour of the university’s Islamic Society and those charged with regulating it.

For those of us who have been studying this issue, it was no surprise to see the documented claims of a “hostile or intimidatory” attitude towards female students and student union officers, or accusations that students had been “threatened by religious groups”.

What was more concerning, however, was the fact that this did not convince the panel that the university was “a breeding-ground for extremism”. This inability to recognise the problem was demonstrated just weeks later, when several universities responded to government claims that they had hosted extreme speakers by simply denying that this was the case – despite evidence to the contrary.

Such institutional pushback forms just a part of widespread sector opposition to Prevent, the government’s counter-radicalisation strategy. A legal duty for universities to have regard of the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism came into force on 21 September; and with it has come criticism about the compatibility of enforcing this duty while protecting freedom of speech.

Given that universities are also required by law to defend this freedom on their campuses, these fears are understandable. With this in mind, however, the government guidance provided to universities specifically highlights the importance of institutions balancing both of these competing legal duties – and provides suggestions to help strike this balance.

These include ensuring that speaker policies, which many institutions already have in place, try to guarantee that extremist speakers face challenges from those with opposing views in a safe environment conducive to debate. This has been echoed by the security minister, John Hayes MP, who pointed out that he would view success as meetings proceeding – suggesting that inviting additional speakers and generating debate is the preferred option.

Despite these efforts, there remains a well-organised campaign to undermine the work carried out as part of Prevent on our campuses, driven to a degree by the very extremists whom the strategy seeks to challenge. This has been compounded by reporting that has taken the opinions of activists from marginal lobby groups engaged in this campaign such as Spinwatch as fact, despite their history of accepting funding from extreme organisations, including one accused by the prime minister of being “a political front for the Muslim Brotherhood”.

Given the strategy’s important safeguarding role, this is deeply concerning. Students vulnerable to radicalisation may be turned away from violent extremism by efforts to balance events and help staff to identify those at risk, something that could mitigate the chances of them later being dealt with by the criminal justice system.

It is possible this could have been done for Roshonara Choudhry, who dropped out of King’s College London before her attempt to murder the MP Stephen Timms in 2010. She told police she had done so because “King’s College is involved in things where they work against Muslims”, and that the university had been aware of her plans to drop out. This raises the question of whether staff could have been better trained to identify her increasing radicalism – something Prevent delivery seeks to provide.

The UK’s universities are rightly proud of their history of open debate, and it is vital that they remain centres where this can continue. However, they have also been slow to recognise the need to ensure that extremists are not given free rein, and that they don’t allow platitudes about freedom of expression to create the illusion of debate.

Putting this responsibility on a statutory basis, if accompanied by effective training and guidance, will go a long way towards fulfilling their duty of care to students such as Choudhry, and should be welcomed.

Rupert Sutton is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and the director of the campus extremism project Student Rights. 

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