Cause to pause before starting the witch trials

September 23, 2005

Gordon Johnson argues that concerns about campus subversion are best tackled in a wider social context

Britain has had long experience in dealing with terrorism. A century or more of the Troubles in Ireland and the messy process of decolonisation have challenged successive governments as they have striven to keep a balance between the preservation of individual rights and keeping society safe from subversion.

What has been achieved is a remarkably successful compromise between a liberal, democratic constitution and draconian powers to be employed by the executive organs of the state when needed. When arbitrary powers have been deployed, they have operated under clear rules, and the judicial procedures protecting individuals have proved not easily subject to change by untrammelled authority. Perhaps some adjustments are needed, but an important starting point is that a good structure is already in place.

The report by Anthony Glees and Chris Pope focuses on the role of universities. It argues that extremist groups - mainly Islamist, but with the British National Party and animal rights groups thrown in - are active and recruiting on campus, and that higher education authorities are doing nothing about it. Both propositions must be contested.

The narrative is decidedly thin and the analysis weak. The authors provide a hasty appraisal of recent events showing that a dozen or so named terrorists have been to a British college or university, that the BNP and animal rights activists have targeted campuses for demonstrations, and that the results of scientific work going on in some institutions, when applied, might possibly threaten the security of the country.

The sources for all this are not wholly convincing, since they derive either from newspapers or from information given in confidence. They certainly don't add up to a compelling argument that higher education is a breeding ground for radical discontent and terrorism. This should give us cause to pause before rushing to endorse the report's recommendations.

These propose new, costly and impractical bureaucratic measures. Of course, universities should take the greatest care with admissions, as it is in no one's interest to have students who are not going to study or who are inadequately qualified. But it is not clear how one sets about excluding "dangerous" individuals. Good records should be maintained, but how practical is this with regard to membership of student societies? Moreover, most institutions, working with their student organisations, already manage difficult questions relating to extremist interventions quite well.

Running courses that espouse British values or arranging the curriculum so that it excludes certain scientific developments or fails to engage with social and political controversy is irrelevant to dealing with the terrorist threat. Such proposals undermine the work of universities and are counterproductive since they destroy trust and the cultural values that are to be defended.

There is growing awareness that security problems are better tackled in a wider context of greater social openness, greater knowledge and better understanding. We simply do not have enough information to define the problems adequately, let alone begin to solve them, and we should not be pushed towards policies that would make this more difficult to achieve. The official US 9/11 report commented on how few American graduates know any Arabic, or have studied the history or sociology of the Middle East. The attacks on London were so shocking because so little is known about the thinking of young Britons. Existing mechanisms for policing, and the focused gathering and analysis of information, are better placed for success than university administrations. Once we get too far into the mindset that gives credence to unfounded suspicion, we will encourage a regime that will inevitably lock up the wrong people.

Gordon Johnson is president of Wolfson College, Cambridge, and deputy vice-chancellor of Cambridge University.

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