Theresa May, the home secretary, said today that universities would be among the institutions placed under “statutory duty”, meaning that they must have policies to deal with extremist speakers taking into account government guidance – or face orders from ministers if they “consistently fail”.
In 2011, Universities UK issued a report describing claims that universities were failing to tackle security issues as “unjustified”.
Ms May was outlining new powers to be included in the counter-terrorism and security bill, to be introduced on Wednesday, when she spoke today at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a defence thinktank.
She warned that “ISIL and its Western fighters now represent one of the most serious terrorist threats we face”, adding that there are also threats from “Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, related organisations in Libya, Al Shabaab in East Africa, terrorists planning attacks from Pakistan and Afghanistan, and home-grown extremists who have been radicalised here in Britain”.
Ms May spoke of radicalisation “taking place behind closed doors in mosques, homes and community centres, but also in schools, universities and prisons”.
And she said: “We will place a statutory duty on named organisations – such as schools, colleges, universities, the police, prisons, probation providers and local government – to help prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.
“So for example universities will have to put in place extremist speaker policies and prisons will have to show they are dealing with extremist prisoners in an appropriate way.
“The organisations subject to the duty will have to take into account guidance issued by the home secretary. Where organisations consistently fail, ministers will be able to issue directions to them – which will be enforceable by court order.”
One of the most prominent cases involving a UK university-educated terrorist was that of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a former president of University College London’s Islamic Society, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in the US after trying to blow up an airliner using explosives sewn into his underwear.
However, an independent review found no evidence to suggest he was radicalised while at UCL.
In 2011, Universities UK launched a website offering information to help staff and students address issues such as protocols for vetting external speakers. That followed a report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Homeland Security, published in April 2011, which said campus extremism was a “serious problem”.
Also in 2011, UUK published Freedom of speech on campus: rights and responsibilities in UK universities.
The report said: “Despite media accusations of complacency by universities in relation to security matters, the survey findings confirm how unjustified such accusations are and how seriously universities take their responsibilities in relation to the safety and security of their staff and students, alongside their obligations to protect and promote free speech and academic freedom.”
The report also said that student societies should “have a system for reviewing speaking events and identifying events and speeches which require them to consider their legal obligations further”.