Additional protection for academic freedom has been added to the government’s counterterrorism bill, but some vice-chancellors and peers still have concerns about the proposed new laws.
At a debate in the House of Lords on 4 February, peers agreed government amendments that introduced references to universities’ obligations around freedom of speech, and which require guidance relating to the bill to be put before Parliament.
The debate also heard that Home Office minister Lord Bates had written to peers highlighting that nearly a third of all people who have been convicted of terrorism-related offences in recent years were university graduates – a statistic that was branded “utterly useless” by one peer.
As previously reported, one of the amendments requires universities to “have particular regard” to their responsibilities around freedom of speech, enshrined in the Education Act 1986, when carrying out the planned duty to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.
The Home Secretary must also have particular regard for freedom of speech in academia when considering whether to issue guidance or to make a direction to a university that was felt to be failing to protect people from being drawn into terrorism, the amendment adds.
Times Higher Education understands that, while the amendments have been welcomed by many vice-chancellors, some remain to be convinced. Clarification has been sought that the bill will not require universities to exclude people holding views which, while extremist, are non-violent.
In the debate, Baron Phillips of Sudbury, the former chancellor of the University of Essex, said it was “utterly useless” to state that 31 per cent of convicted terrorists “had been students”, when there was “not the very slightest idea” whether they had been terrorists before they went to university, or had become terrorists as a result of what happened to them at university.
“I would be so bold as to suggest that going to university in this country, far from making terrorists, unmakes them,” the peer said. “Universities are engines of moderation, truth, objective inquiry, tolerance and so on. The odds are – if one could ever measure this, and I am quite sure one cannot – that the statistics would show a radical effect on people going to university” that stopped them becoming terrorists.
Viscount Hanworth, a professor of econometrics and computational statistics at the University of Leicester, agreed. He stated that the 31 per cent statistic seemed a “strikingly low figure” given the higher education participation rate among young people, which “might be interpreted as an indication of the efficacy of higher education institutions in diminishing the threat of terrorism”.
“The success of British institutions of higher education as effective agents of counterterrorism ought to be widely recognised,” he said.
Lord Bates said it was right to protect students from radicalisation.
“Young people accounted for around 31 per cent of terrorist-related convictions between 2001 and June 2014,” he told the debate. “The Prevent duty is designed to apply to sectors that can most effectively protect vulnerable people from radicalisation and from being drawn into terrorism.”
The bill will have its third reading in the Lords on 9 February.