The government is looking again at the issue of campus radicalisation in the wake of the murder of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich on 22 May.
Addressing the House of Commons last week after chairing a new task force on tackling radicalisation, Prime Minister David Cameron said he wanted to “drain the swamp” that allowed violent extremism to take root in British society, including groups based at universities.
His comments threaten to reignite a debate that has been smouldering for years over the role universities do or do not play in the dissemination of extremist views.
The law currently enshrines the fact that university campuses should be places of intellectual freedom: under the Education Act 1986 and the Education Reform Act 1988, universities have a legally defined responsibility to guarantee freedom of speech and encourage academic freedom. They are places for scholars and students with different backgrounds, views and opinions to come together and engage in intellectual debate.
However, debates held on campus, particularly those hosted by student societies, have come under the microscope over claims that they expose students to extremism.
In February, City University London was accused of discrimination after it closed a prayer room to Muslim students in light of concerns raised over the sermons being preached there. It took the action after the City University Islamic Society refused to submit sermons to be checked for their appropriateness.
There have also been controversies in recent months over men and women being asked to sit separately at Islamic debates held on university campuses. And just last week, London Metropolitan University’s Islamic Society had to apologise after a link to an extremist video about the Woolwich attack was posted on its Facebook page.
“If you are going to run a society on campus, I think that you have to comply with the university’s rules,” said Rupert Sutton, head of research at Student Rights, an organisation that seeks to expose campus extremism. “If the university is asking to see material at your talks, then I think by saying that you’re not going to comply…you have to face any sanctions that come your way.
“This is not…a gross attempt to censor students or to stop them expressing themselves religiously.”
Rights and responsibilities
In 2011, Universities UK produced a report on the issue, Freedom of Speech on Campus: Rights and Responsibilities in UK Universities. Produced by a working group chaired by Malcolm Grant, provost of University College London, it stated that since student societies are charities, they should “have a system for reviewing speaking events and identifying events and speeches which require them to consider their legal obligations further”.
It continued: “For those events and speeches, the relevant risks should be assessed by the trustees – this may mean reviewing copies of potentially problematic speeches in advance and ultimately preventing [them] from going ahead if they breach the trustees’ obligations.”
But at the same time, universities should ensure that they are not targeting specific groups, it added.
Colm O’Cinneide, reader in law at UCL and a human rights specialist, said that institutions were subject to the Equality Act 2010, with all the duties that entails.
“In how they perform their functions, they need to take into account the need to treat all groups equally and also to promote equal opportunity and non-discrimination in the university setting itself,” Dr O’Cinneide said.
However, such considerations have not stopped the government taking a hard line.
In May 2011, Theresa May, the home secretary, accused universities of “complacency” over the subject.
“I don’t think they have been sufficiently willing to recognise what can be happening on their campuses and the radicalisation that can take place,” she said.
The following month, the government released its own detailed policy document on the problem – the Prevent Strategy – which has a section devoted to higher education.
It said that universities can easily become breeding grounds for extremists, so it was institutions’ respon-sibility to exercise a duty of care to prevent students being recruited into terrorist organisations.
The report also stated that 30 per cent of the terrorists connected to al-Qaeda who were convicted between 1999 and 2009 in the UK had attended university or another form of higher education institution.
Although some had been committed to terrorism before they attended, others were radicalised during their studies, the document added. Among the latter group is the individual whose actions sparked the government and UUK reviews – Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the UCL graduate and ex-president of its Islamic Society who attempted to blow up a plane flying to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.
However, despite the Home Office’s views, UUK is clear in its report about the tightrope the academy has to tread: “views expressed within universities – whether by staff, students or visitors – may sometimes appear to be extreme or even offensive. However, unless views can be expressed they cannot also be challenged.”
Free speech and safety
So what can universities do to balance their obligations to keep students safe while allowing them the equality to which they are entitled?
Dr O’Cinneide said it came down to dialogue: “What often needs to happen is an open and frank discussion with student societies and clubs…to try and make it clear…what’s expected, what is good behaviour and also what sort of freedom of action they have.”
For its part, the National Union for Students has a “No Platform” policy for organisations that it believes promote racism or fascism. The English Defence League, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK, Al-Muhajiroun and the British National Party are currently subject to that policy.
Pete Mercer, the NUS’ vice-president for welfare, said: “A balance has to be found that ensures a free flow of debate among students and keeps hate speech away from campus. Both institutions and students’ unions have a responsibility to work to make sure that the risks any external speakers present…are mitigated and the NUS provides guidance to aid with this process.”
The law already tries to strike this balance. As well as defining universities’ importance to freedom of speech, the Education Act 1986 makes clear their duty to set out procedures for students, members and employees in regard to any meetings or activities that take place on campus.
These codes of practice should also cover universities’ rights to deny organisations access to campus and how to keep order at events.
The Prevent Strategy goes further by suggesting that universities conduct risk assessments on speakers.
Mr Sutton accepted that this may be problematic. “You have hundreds of events that take place every week on university campuses and to run thorough risk assessments on all of them would perhaps be too much work,” he said.
As a result, he added, the issue may be addressed only by universities sharing information.
Moves to formalise such networking took a step forward last month with the launch of Safe Campus Communities, a website run by UUK to help staff and students address issues such as protocols for vetting external speakers, engaging with the community and police, and promoting healthy inter-faith relations on campus.
With the potential for Mr Cameron’s task force to look afresh at legislation to counter campus radicalisation, such non-statutory networks are more important than ever.