V-cs told to root out extremism

September 16, 2005

Universities must defend the "moderate majority" of students by "identifying and confronting" extremist behaviour on campus, the Education Secretary demanded this week.

Ruth Kelly, in her first major speech on higher education, said universities had a duty to "inform the police" about concerns they had about "unacceptable behaviour" or criminal acts in the wake of the London bombings in July. Her speech will add to concerns among lecturers that they may be expected to police academic debates and spy on students.

Speaking to an audience of vice-chancellors at the Universities UK conference on Thursday, Ms Kelly said: "I believe that higher education institutions need to identify and confront unacceptable behaviour on their premises and within their community.

"They should be alert and be unafraid to set their own boundaries - within the law and with the law in support - in consultation with their own community and the wider community. That means informing the police where criminal offences are being perpetrated or where there may be concerns about possible criminal acts.

"Institutions have a duty to support and look after the moderate majority as they study, to ensure that those students are not har-assed, intimidated or pressured."

But Ms Kelly stressed that the mission of universities was to "teach people to think for themselves and express themselves, and to listen to and consider the opinions of others".

The response to the terror attacks should not "include trying to shut ourselves off from the rest of the world" and the UK should "continue to welcome growing numbers of legitimate foreign students into our universities", she said.

The Association of University Teachers declined to comment ahead of the speech, but it is understood that concerns are emerging about the implications for staff and their relationships with students of the move to crack down on extremism.

Roger Kline, head of universities at lecturers' union Natfhe said staff would feel "uneasy" with the Government's notion of "unacceptable behaviour", which could include anything from anti-war protests to support for Palestinian rights.

Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, met representatives of Muslim communities in Leeds, at the city's Park Lane College last Thursday. In the first of a series of such meetings, Mr Rammell said that his aim was to establish "common cause" with student unions and Islamic societies to ensure that the majority of Muslim students had appropriate support on the campus.

The Times Higher revealed in July that later this year, UUK planned to publish new guidelines for institutions on dealing with extremist behaviour. In her speech to UUK this week, Ms Kelly also spelt out her vision for higher education in the 21st century. "Hi-tech companies and venture capitalists clustering around a university or group of universities and feeding off their research," she said.

Ms Kelly pledged that "one of central government's main endeavours must be to provide predictability and stability in policy and funding so that universities can plan and innovate with some degree of certainty".

While offering the prospect of more government help for part-time study, the Education Secretary added that she was not convinced that increasing part-time fees would have the calamitous impact on participation that some have warned of.

paul.hill@thes.co.uk

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