The power of the great big No

September 16, 2005

Ironically, Thatcher's law may block Blair's campuscrackdown, says Bob Brecher. But universities must collectively fight for free speech

In its determination to take whatever advantage it can of the London bombings of July to pursue its long-running attack on civil liberties, the Government immediately turned its attention to universities ("Crackdown on campus", July 22). Two things stand in its way as it tries to bring universities to heel. First, and this is a measure of the surreal times in which we live, there is Thatcher's 1986 Education Act, designed in part to secure freedom of expression for those on the receiving end of policies barring, for instance, the National Front from speaking on university platforms.

Second, there is what we do. If all of us working and studying in universities refuse to comply, then we will have done something to discharge our public responsibilities. If we do not, then we become complicit instruments of government policy, and our universities will cease to be worth defending as academic institutions. We have to draw a line at these proposals.

Does the Home Office really think that banning extremist groups, or that vetting "all applicants from a list of ten countries" for some subjects, will diminish terrorism, rather than encourage the alienation that helps lead to it? Or is it totally cynical? Either way, Simon Lee, vice-chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University, is right to urge us rather "to redouble efforts to develop critical thinking" ("We can't peer into souls", July 22). The trouble is that this is precisely what New Labour wants to prevent in universities as elsewhere - as its response to the bombings amply testifies.

Even more disturbing than these "administrative measures" is Blair's threat to make it an offence - even implicitly - to condone, support or glorify (depending on which report you read) terrorism. If I invite students on a course debating war and terrorism to consider, say, the reasons that so-called suicide bombers might have for what they do, does that fall under "implicit support"? If al-Qaeda manifestos are off limits, then what of Hitler's Mein Kampf ? There is no room for compromise. Either students should read these texts, and others no less offensive or inflammatory, because it is important to analyse, understand and learn from them; or they have to be "protected" from this sort of nonsense because they are stupid and irresponsible enough to be taken in by it.

To argue the second line is to agree with the born-again Blairites in their mimicry of the fundamentalism they decry. We may as well invite Campus Watch to set up shop here. Worse even than that, the "moves by the US intelligence agency to place trainee spies secretly in university anthropology departments" ("CIA outrages UK academics", June 3) could be replicated in dozens of university departments around the country. After all, if seminar-room stooges are needed because the US is at war, the argument can easily be extended to the UK. Of course it is spurious, but that is not enough to defeat it.

With its open letter of July 5 condemning the Government's plans to abolish the right of appeal for international students refused visas, and signed by all 120 vice-chancellors, Universities UK has shown that it is capable of leadership. We should encourage our vice-chancellors in taking a stand by calling on them to go further and make it absolutely clear to the Prime Minister that they will under no circumstances go along with plans to introduce thought police into our universities. UUK can - and must - say "no", loudly, publicly and repeatedly.

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy, Brighton University.

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