Universities should not be 'security establishments', say experts on terror

Experts on Islam and terrorism have urged caution over calls for universities to be more hands-on in checking that students are not being radicalised on campus.

January 7, 2010

An attempt by a former University College London student to blow up a passenger jet on Christmas Day has prompted criticism of universities for failing to monitor students for extremist leanings.

The would-be bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, is the fourth former president of a London university's Islamic society to face terrorist charges in three years.

But Harris Beider, professor at Coventry University's Institute of Community Cohesion, warned that monitoring students to the extent that some commentators have demanded would cost "huge amounts" at a time of higher education funding cuts.

"There's also the concern that monitoring could lead to student profiling, and profiling is notoriously unreliable," he said.

The link between Mr Abdulmutallab's time at UCL, where he studied engineering between 2005 and 2008, and his radicalisation is under dispute.

His peers have said that the Nigerian, who is from a wealthy background, did not express extremist views while studying and appeared to have changed after graduation.

Richard Jackson, editor of the journal Critical Studies on Terrorism and reader in international politics at Aberystwyth University, said: "Many in the media take the view that because certain individuals were once students at a university, that university must have been a key factor in their violent radicalisation.

"This makes a causal leap that is totally unwarranted and baseless; the same individuals were also secondary school students, primary school students, family members, and, no doubt, members of a social football team.

"Picking some random element of their background and then assuming a causal link to violent radicalisation is highly unscientific and is not supported by the scholarly evidence."

H. A Hellyer, a research fellow at the University of Warwick and deputy convenor of a Home Office working group on tackling extremism and radicalisation, said: "Universities are generally not held accountable for the actions of their graduates; not for IRA sympathisers who graduated from British universities, nor extremists from any background - the British National Party chairman is a University of Cambridge graduate."

He added that universities are not "security establishments", agreeing with Malcolm Grant, UCL's provost, who argued in an opinion piece written for www.timeshighereducation.co.uk last week that their job was to encourage the "debate, disputation and criticism that is central to the concept of a university".

Professor Grant also announced a review into Mr Abdulmutallab's time at UCL.

Frederic Volpi, a lecturer in the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews, said that universities were under scrutiny only because there was no official body responsible for "people meeting up in the basement of sports clubs to discuss political violence in the name of Islam".

"If all the controversial issues having to do with Islamic student societies were resolved by university authorities, the debates and 'extremist' discussion would simply take place elsewhere," Dr Volpi said.


Web update:

Universities UK has announced that it is to set up a working group to look at the balance between protection of academic freedom and prevention of violent extremism on campus.

The group will be chaired by Malcolm Grant, provost of UCL, and will consider “how universities can work with all relevant organisations, nationally and locally, to ensure the protection of freedom of speech and lawful academic activities, while safeguarding students, staff and the wider community from violent extremism”.

Steve Smith, UUK president, said: “It is essential that as a society we respond rationally to the issue of extremism. UUK therefore is fully supportive of the measured and effective response of UCL following the arrest of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

“This is the only way of ensuring that we address the real issues and prevent acts of terrorism from occurring in the future. Bearing this in mind, and building on our report Promoting Good Campus Relations published in 2005, UUK intends to respond to the events following Mr Abdulmutallab’s arrest by setting up a working group.”

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