Students’ unions hit back at group monitoring campus extremism

Student Rights’ agenda questioned by LSE, Birkbeck, Goldsmiths unions

January 2, 2014

Three students’ unions have condemned a group that monitors extremist speakers on campus for “targeting Muslim students”.

Student Rights, which refutes the students’ unions’ claims, released a report in May 2013 on events organised by Islamic societies that found that a quarter of those it monitored had enforced gender segregation.

The report hit the headlines, and the issue prompted a major political row after Universities UK released guidance in November that suggested that universities would legally have to allow gender segregation if a religious speaker demanded it.

Last month, unions at the London School of Economics, Goldsmiths, University of London and Birkbeck, University of London all passed motions claiming that the group indulges in “sensationalism” around Muslim students.

These motions have been coordinated by a group called Real Student Rights.

One of its supporters, Hilary Aked, a doctoral student at the University of Bath, argued that the Student Rights report, Unequal Opportunity – Gender Segregation on UK University Campuses, had exaggerated the proportion of events that are segregated because it monitored only Islamic events where the speaker had a history of extreme views, or where gender segregation was explicitly promoted.

She also argued that Student Rights’ focus was disproportionately on Muslim groups, rather than on far Right extremists.

“I don’t know what legitimacy they have to call themselves ‘Student Rights’,” she said. “They don’t engage students. They should not be monitoring students at all.”

Another charge is that Student Rights, which was set up in 2009 to promote “freedom from extremism on university campuses” has failed to make fully clear its links to the Henry Jackson Society, a thinktank.

Rupert Sutton, a researcher at the organisation, said that the Student Rights report – which he co-authored – made it “quite clear” that it was not an attempt to monitor all Islamic societies.

The report outlines its methodology on page three, where it stresses that it is not an “exhaustive” list of Islamic events on campus.

But Mr Sutton acknowledged that “in some cases the nuance wasn’t picked up by the press”.

He said that Student Rights had covered far Right groups, including the National Culturists group operating at the University of Liverpool, and so it was “unfair” to suggest that it “was going out of our way to ignore far-right speakers and targeting Islamic speakers”.

The group did scrutinise more Islamic speakers than those from the far Right, he said, but this was simply because there were more extremists on campus from the former group than the latter.

On the demand that Student Rights should cease its monitoring of events, he said this would give extremist speakers a “free ride”.

“Simply for writing about [these issues] you’re smeared as an anti-Muslim bigot,” he said. Mr Sutton added that the group’s advisory board included both Labour and Conservative politicians and that it worked with students “across the political divide”.

Regarding the Henry Jackson Society – to whose principles David Willetts, the universities and science minister, is a signatory – he said that Student Rights was “a project of” the thinktank and shared an office with it, but it raised funding independently.

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