Strong ties are best defence

University terror inquiries flag the vital role of strong pastoral care and good tutoring in guarding against disengagement

March 12, 2015

Mohammed Emwazi, Michael Adebolajo and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab are among the highest profile terrorists to have emerged from Britain in recent years.

Emwazi has murdered in Syria; Adebolajo did the same outside Woolwich barracks; Abdulmutallab tried and failed to blow up an airliner. All three studied at London universities.

There are those who will argue cause and effect; that too-liberal universities are complicit in radicalisation, allowing extremists ready access to impressionable minds.

The counter-argument – that debate is the way to defuse inflammatory material – has been well made in the response to proposed counter-terrorism legislation, which threatened to limit the boundaries of freedom of speech.

It is striking how little Greenwich has dredged up on Adebolajo…his personal tutor has ‘no recollection of him at all’

So could universities be doing more to protect susceptible young people from the clutches of nihilists who manage to convince a vulnerable few that they offer something more persuasive, and seemingly inclusive, than their experience on campus?

This week, we report on the findings of an investigation carried out by the University of Greenwich following the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby by Adebolajo and an accomplice in May 2013.

Adebolajo was a student at Greenwich from 2003 to 2005. The report tracks his descent from poor performance to disengagement such that he appears not to have been studying at all.

Having previously tried and failed to get into Greenwich, he was eventually accepted through clearing to study building surveying (with just 30 tariff points, the report says). In his second year he switched to study politics, failing the year before dropping out.

The inquiry found he was not radicalised on campus but cites evidence from a contemporary that he was involved with outside groups which saw the university as a recruiting ground.

Where questions remain is over the link between his disengagement from study and his engagement with extremism, and even allowing for the time that has passed it is striking how little the university has dredged up on Adebolajo the student (indeed, his personal tutor has “no recollection of him at all”).

Greenwich has changed its tutoring system in the intervening years, and while an institution cannot be held responsible for what goes on beyond campus walls, it’s self-evident that engagement with and retention of students are prerequisites to any continuing influence over their lives and choices.

The point is reinforced in a report produced by University College London in 2010 into the radicalisation of Abdulmutallab. In many ways he was a very different student from Adebolajo – wealthy, involved with student union activities, well known and liked. But the UCL inquiry also highlights weaknesses in his department’s “hands-off” approach to student support.

For all the focus on inflammatory issues such as who to ban from speaking on campus, the evidence from recent cases is that we are not suffering from a rash of “campus-grown” terrorists. However, Greenwich and UCL both pose questions about the support offered to vulnerable students.

The thoroughness of the inquiries set up in these instances is commendable. But at a time of changing work and study patterns and increasing student numbers – both international and domestic – it’s clear that pastoral care and effective tutoring is not something that can be allowed to slip amid competing pressures; they are absolutely integral to universities’ work.

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