Beacons of truth or crucibles of terror?

September 23, 2005

Fears grow, post 9/11 and 7/7, that universities may be an explosive cocktail of the clever and the gullible, the shadowy recruiters and the would-be warriors

Universities must monitor subversives to sustain our free, liberal way of life, says Anthony Glees

In a few sentences tacked on to a speech she made last week, Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, called on universities to crack down on campus extremists. Echoing a similar rallying cry made in July by Bill Rammell, Minister for Higher Education, she insisted that "institutions have a duty to support and look after the moderate majority as they study, to ensure that those students are not harassed, intimidated or pressured".

But it is rather late in the day to wake up to a problem that has been brewing for a decade. The study of campus extremist and terrorist activity that I have done with my colleague Chris Pope shows that UK universities and colleges have dropped their guard for so long that there is every reason to believe such groups constitute a real security threat.

We define terrorism, and its precondition subversion, with care. It should be confined to those who use terror and violence or the threat of them to achieve their political objectives. So we argue that terrorists and extremists are more than simple criminals and that ideas matter to them.

Our definition, therefore, includes groups such as the Animal Liberation Front and possibly the British National Party, not solely Jihadists or Islamists.

The BNP is not a terrorist organisation in the commonly defined sense, but its members have been convicted of race-hate crimes. That includes Nick Griffin, the party leader, who was found guilty in 1998 of distributing material likely to incite racial hatred. We feel that such crimes should be regarded as a threat of violence against a particular racial group and, for that reason, the BNP comes within our definition.

Universities and colleges are not the sole sites of recruitment - others include prisons and mosques. But higher education has a particular role to fulfil in containing and perhaps preventing extremism. The act of recruitment is, itself, a secret act and neither we nor anyone has yet seen it happen. Nevertheless, our report provides evidence - gained from open sources as well as confidential interviews with leading figures in the security and intelligence community - to support our claims.

There is nothing new in the idea that universities can be recruiting grounds for those who wish to destroy parliamentary liberal democracy. This has happened in the UK since before the Second World War. In Europe in the 1970s, the Marxist/Maoist Baader-Meinhof Gang gained close to 5 million sympathisers, chiefly in West German universities. Today, in France, secret intelligence agents are deployed on several campuses to monitor extremist threats. Nothing of this kind happens in the UK.

Universities are security problems partly because so many academics believe the concept of free speech can be extended to cover activities that have nothing to do with "speech". It is, perhaps, not coincidental that many of today's senior dons were students in the days of revolutionary campus politics in the 1960s. They settled down to bourgeois lives and salaries, they may argue, so why imagine today's subversives might be different? Student records contain scant information, since academics in many universities tend not to be too concerned about who turns up for lectures, tutorials or seminars. They know that even failing students will find it hard to get themselves expelled from many institutions, so there seems little point in recording attendance. Most academics steer clear of involvement in student societies and have little idea of whether students are involved with subversive organisations.

Even student union presidents are largely unaware of what affiliated clubs and societies get up to. One told us that more than 50 per cent of the clubs under his auspices refuse to tell him what their aims are. We know that Hizb ut-Tahrir and al-Muhajiroun, both Islamist groups supportive of terrorism, often conceal their identity on campus (from which they are banned) by calling themselves things such as "the international politics society".

The decline in government funding by one third in real terms since 1989 is another reason why universities and colleges are in trouble today. Their response has been to focus on recruiting ever more students, particularly from overseas. Thirty eight per cent of all research students come from abroad. The care with which they are screened is shown by two different but chilling statistics.

In 2003-04, 17,000 overseas students were offered places in Britain - and entry visas - and never turned up for study. We don't allege that these missing people were extremists, simply that it demonstrates the rigour with which overseas students are "selected". Second, just as universities do not fully comprehend that they can be security threats by letting extremists and subversives recruit on campus, some do not understand that what these individuals teach can be a danger to this country and its values.

Many institutions turned down the Government's offer to vet overseas students. Even though some 200 foreign scientists have subsequently been barred from working in Britain by those who participated in the scheme, those deciding not to participate still argue that such measures constitute an unnecessary burden and interfere with academic freedom. Yet one noted university has concluded a deal with a state generally considered "rogue", whose ambitions run counter to those of the UK, to train a considerable number of postgraduates in a subject of strategic importance. None was vetted.

What can be the advantage to Britain's security in doing so? It is sometimes argued that terrorists can learn all they want via the internet.

But faced with a choice between unreliable websites and the brains of some of Britain's best scientists, it is not hard to see which resource is the more appealing.

This is why we say there is a real issue here. This does not mean that with a student population of almost 3 million we are talking of hundreds of thousands of possible extremists. Probably, at most, we are speaking of hundreds. But as July's London bomb attacks show, eight people can terrorise a nation and four can kill more than 50 and wound more than 500.

A leaked 2004 Cabinet paper suggests that "British Muslims who are most at risk of being drawn into terrorism and extremism fall into two groups: first, those who are well educated with degrees, typically targeted by extremist recruiters and organisations circulating on campuses" and second "underachievers with few and no qualifications and often a non-terrorist criminal background".

Of course, these groups are not quite as discrete as some might think: the high dropout rate in some universities and the number of students with poor qualifications who are happily accepted into British higher education show that campuses can bring together the very bright and the very gullible.

So what should be done? First, our security agencies - Special Branch and MI5 - need to develop new strategies for monitoring campus extremism. They need to work not simply against "terrorism" but also against "subversion".

We argue that before someone becomes a political terrorist, he or she becomes a subversive. If countered, then he or she might perhaps be prevented from doing serious harm. Second, while we understand the reluctance of plainclothes officers to go on to campuses, they should not be deterred by the thought that many dons will seek to keep out "the secret police". Indeed, we have learnt that the police are considering placing community officers on big campuses. There is also scope for covert action.

In the war on terror, openness is not always a virtue and secrecy is not always a vice.

But most universities will have to do the hard work themselves. They must establish watertight screening methods, together with MI5, to exclude dangerous students. They should interview all undergraduates and postgraduates. They should abolish clearing, because it is a security threat - those entering university this way do not have to provide full evidence of who they are or what their intentions are. Student records must be made user friendly and maintained properly and should include attendance.

Dons should know who they are teaching. They should ban "faith" societies.

If people wish to form associations on the basis of religion, they should not be permitted to do so on campuses. Nor should any form of exclusivity be tolerated.

Universities are a problem. But they also contain the answer. Our report suggests that security measures are vital, but it is equally vital for universities to remember what their social purpose is: to promote debate and the exchange of ideas. Not any ideas, of course, but those that help sustain our free, liberal and democratic way of life. Dons must return to pastoral teaching, campuses should stop pretending they are big business enterprises and become what they were even a few years ago: places of learning.

Anthony Glees is professor of politics at Brunel University's Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies. His report When Students Turn to Terror: Terrorist and Extremist Activity on British Campuses , co-authored with Chris Pope, is published by the Social Affairs Unit.

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