Louise Richardson, the current head of the University of St Andrews, who was recently nominated as the next leader of Oxford, told a major international conference that "any terrorist I have ever met through my academic work had a highly oversimplified view of the world, which they saw in black and white terms.
"Education robs you of that simplification and certitude. Education is the best possible antidote to radicalisation.”
But speaking on a panel titled “Going to extremes: universities and radicalisation” at the British Council’s Going Global conference on 2 June, she added that it was also vital that radical thought – which she said should not be confused with violent radicalisation – was allowed and fostered in universities.
“The idea that the world was round was once a radical idea. It’s imperative we have a place that ideas can be challenged, and universities are the perfect place for that.”
Mohammed Farouk, vice-chancellor of Federal University Kashere in Nigeria, agreed that the two ideas must remain separate in discussions.
“In my experience in Nigeria in the 1970s it was almost a rite of passage for students to become radicalised, to take on issues of social justice. Today, ‘radicalisation’ now becomes equated with terrorism, violence,” he said.
“I see radicalisation as more of a process that challenges the status quo, rejects the status quo and takes on existing ideas in society. Radicalisation needs to be taken away from terrorism.”
In a wide-ranging discussion, the audience was also told that terrorism threat levels are being exaggerated.
Marie Breen-Smyth, chair in international politics at the University of Surrey, said: “Road accidents are much more of a threat to society than terrorism will ever be, even in Northern Ireland.
“Threat exaggeration serves a particular interest in society to make money out of counterterrorism and security. That’s not to say there isn’t a threat, there is, and we need to be concerned about it, but let’s get it into perspective.”
She added that the key problem lies with violence, and not radical ideas.
“I would put education in schools and universities about violence and alternatives to violence. We need to equip young people with an understanding of how to organise campaigns and impact on their worlds in a non-violent and democratic way.”
However, Bill Rammell, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and a former higher education minister under Labour, warned that while education is the “most effective counter force to extremism” it is “not the case that if you educate somebody you are in the clear and they don’t go down the path of violence”.
But he added that while it was reasonable for universities to “draw the line between radical thought and violent extremism”, the “burden” universities had been given to tackle non-violent extremism under the recent Counter-Terrorism and Security Act was a “problem”.