Terrorism bill will make universities ‘agents of the state’, warns vice-chancellor

Anthony Forster explains why university leaders have strong concerns about the proposals

January 28, 2015

The counter-terrorism and security bill is being fast-tracked through Parliament. It was introduced into the House of Commons on 26 November and Royal Assent is expected in February.

The bill as currently drafted will change the relationship between the state and universities, and between universities and their staff and students. It will see universities becoming agents of the state, going beyond their status as educational institutions and becoming regulators of staff and student behaviour in ways that are inconsistent with other statutory obligations. Such changes are unwise, counterproductive and run the risk of causing mistrust and alienation.

The bill places a new statutory terrorism prevention duty on a number of public bodies, including universities. At first glance, the obligation to “have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism” is unproblematic. The threat we all face from terrorism is serious and real and we as universities fully acknowledge the role we can play in preventing terrorism and violent extremism.

However, we can best do this through existing legal obligations and commitments rather than yet another Act of Parliament. Universities are already covered by extensive prevention of terrorism legislation, are actively engaging in supporting the government’s 2011 Prevent Strategy to counter terrorism and radicalisation and already subscribe to additional guidance from Universities UK, the organisation representing UK universities. The proposed “one model fits all” statutory approach is therefore wrong both in principle and in practice.

There appears to have been little if any consideration of how the proposed new duty, as it applies to universities, relates to our existing statutory duties concerning academic freedom. Academic freedom, enshrined in law years ago, established the legal right of academics in the UK “to question and test received wisdom and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions without placing themselves in jeopardy”. The bill will unnecessarily limit our freedom within the law to conduct research, teach, speak, and publish without interference or penalty. As Martin Hall, former vice-chancellor of the University of Salford, described in an article in Times Higher Education (‘Teacher, tutor, soldier, spy: towards a police state of mind’, 8 January), the proposed measures have the potential to inhibit legitimate academic debate in universities - and to impact on freedom of association as lecturers and students worry about whether critical discussions could result in them being judged to fall foul of the new duty.

Under the proposals, the Home Secretary will issue guidance about the exercise of the new duty and will have the power to give directions and enforce performance via a court order. This new statutory power is broad and ill-defined and, put simply, has no place in relation to universities. Indeed it raises the prospect of unprecedented direct political interference in the day-to-day running and operation of universities. At the same time there is no provision for the new powers to be subject to parliamentary scrutiny and no evidence to demonstrate the need for such powers to support prevention.

The draft guidance supporting the bill sets out a wide range of requirements, for example: training of all staff to recognise those vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism and to take action; additional requirements in relation to the use of the internet; and even more regulation of speaker events. The proposals are ill-considered, disproportionate, and potentially impossible for universities to fulfil. It is right to focus on how the law might be implemented as, indeed, UUK is doing. However, this should not detract from the more important point that this bill is likely to undermine university-government relationships and have an unintended effect of inviting more clandestine expressions of extremism in forums where they are less likely to be challenged.

The threat we all face from terrorism is serious and real and we have a collective responsibility to address this. As universities we are at our best and at our most effective in preventing terrorism and radicalisation by ensuring that our academics and students are free to question and test received wisdom within the current law.

In their legislative scrutiny report, the Joint Committee on Human Rights has recommended removing universities from the bill. They are right. Rather than redefining the role of British universities through a counter-terrorism and security bill, surely it is more appropriate to review the Prevent Strategy to ensure that the existing obligations that apply to universities are being implemented effectively and to strengthen them as necessary. If we want a debate about what universities are for, let’s have that debate - but not as an accidental by-product of legislation on counter-terrorism and radicalisation.

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