Crackdown on campus

July 22, 2005

Post-7/7 realities: monitoring debate, reporting suspicious applicants

Universities could be forced to hand information on academic and student applicants to the security services and will be expected to monitor academic debates on campus under a series of moves by the Government following the London terrorist attacks.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office said this week that a voluntary vetting scheme, under which the office is alerted to overseas research applicants suspected of planning to develop weapons of mass destruction, could be made compulsory.

In a separate move, Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell told The Times Higher that there should be limits to free speech for staff and students on campuses where debate has tipped over into incitement to violence. He suggested universities would have responsibility for the crackdown.

In response to growing concerns that university campuses are fertile ground for propagating Islamic extremism and potential recruiting grounds for terrorists, Mr Rammell said: "We do need to uphold free speech while at the same time isolating and challenging extremist views on campus. We have to make clear that the promulgation of some views - such as those that incite racial hatred - are unlawful.

"Getting the balance right will be challenging, but we have do it. It's a debate we can't avoid."

Under the FCO's voluntary vetting scheme, established in 1994 to prevent the proliferation of WMD, universities are requested to pass on names of all applicants from a list of ten countries, including Egypt, Pakistan and Iran, who apply to study any subject on a list of 21 disciplines, including biotechnology and nuclear physics.

Data released under the Freedom of Information Act this week revealed that since 2001, universities had voluntarily handed over the names of 2,282 applicants. Security officials recommended that 238 of these be refused admission to research programmes.

In 2005, until May, eight of 6 reported to the authorities had their applications rejected.

But the scheme was criticised this week as it emerged that many universities were refusing to co-operate with the voluntary scheme, and there are wide variations between institutions on how they apply the vetting system.

The data were released following the arrest in Egypt last week of Magdi el-Nashar, a PhD biochemist at Leeds University who allegedly had links to the house in Leeds where explosive materials were found last week. He has denied being linked to the terrorist attacks.

An FCO spokesman said that the system had been under review since well before this month's terrorist attacks. He said: "The major loophole with the scheme at the moment is that it is voluntary. If a university doesn't take part, it is theoretically possible for an Iranian student to gain an education in nuclear physics in Britain and become part of Iran's nuclear weapons programme.

"It is possible and very undesirable. The review is to see whether there is any way of preventing that. It could consider that the only way is to impose it by means of a legislative bill."

But the spokesman said that he could not pre-empt the review, which had not been concluded.

David Allen, chairman of the Association of Heads of University Administration, said:"The association is strongly opposed to a compulsory scheme because it would be counterproductive. We think that trying to compel academics to refer people would drive the scheme into the ground, because a lot of academics would be reluctant to do that."

A report due out next month by Anthony Glees, director of the Centre for Intelligence and Security Research at Brunel University, reports on 14 cases since 1993 in which people later connected with terrorism experienced a "tipping point" after coming into contact with extremists on campus.

Professor Glees, speaking to The Times Higher , cited the example of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British-born terrorist. Sheikh, who murdered American journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, said that he became radicalised while attending the London School of Economics.

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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