Universities are no place for the anti-terror thought police

Counterterrorism laws are stifling research and debate in UK universities.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams

Topics Politics

The UK Counter Terrorism and Security Bill, currently making its way through parliament, will impose a duty upon universities to prevent people from being radicalised and drawn into extremism, religious fundamentalism or terrorism. The British government clearly thinks it is incumbent on academics to police the behaviour of students, monitor their whereabouts and report anything suspicious to the police.

The proposed legislation builds upon the Prevent strategy, which was introduced by the Labour government in the mid-2000s as an attempt to eradicate violent extremism. As a result of Prevent, universities have, over the past 10 years, introduced a plethora of rules to regulate student societies and invitations to external speakers. If passed, the new demands will go further in banning ‘radical’ speakers from campus. Universities and students’ unions will be expected to enforce far stricter procedures for checking the profiles of guest speakers. Anyone with strongly held religious or political views will be banned outright. For others, the time and energy needed to comply with such bureaucratic checking mechanisms will surely act as a deterrent. In addition, the latest proposals further compel universities to identify individual students they consider vulnerable to radicalisation and to report them to a local authority panel where they will then be monitored closely by the police and subjected to ‘deradicalisation’ counselling.

Such directives are proving controversial. Universities and students’ unions already ban speakers, and commentators have pointed out that the new legislation will further restrict academic freedom. The imperative to monitor and report individual students has received less attention but is also highly problematic. There is no consensus around what a student ‘vulnerable to radicalisation’ looks like and even less agreement as to how they can be spotted at the back of a lecture theatre. How lecturers are expected to distinguish between the intellectual experimentation many young people go through while at university and their becoming radicalised is anyone’s guess. Worse than just providing moral dilemmas, the expectation that academics should effectively spy on their students will inevitably erode the trust that is essential for teaching and learning to take place.

Previous examples show how such legislation will play out in practice. In May 2008, Hicham Yezza, an administrator at the University of Nottingham, and PhD student Rizwaan Sabir were arrested under Section 41 of the Terrorism Act on suspicion of the ‘instigation, preparation and commission of acts of terrorism’. The arrests were triggered by the presence on Yezza’s office computer of a document Sabir was using in his doctoral research and had sent to Yezza to print. The document, described by the police as an ‘al-Qaeda training manual’, was freely available on the internet and for sale on Amazon. Yezza was held in custody for six days before being released without charge, only to be immediately re-arrested on immigration charges, detained for a further 27 days under threat of deportation and finally sentenced to nine months in prison for not having a correct visa. Sabir received compensation from the police for false imprisonment. Not only did the entirely groundless charges devastate the lives of the individuals involved; the case also served to chill academic freedom and create a climate of mistrust within universities.

More generally, we can see the impact over the past couple of years of universities playing a greater role in enforcing immigration controls through monitoring the whereabouts of international students in the UK on study visas. Universities are expected to notify the UK Border Agency if such students do not turn up to start their course or are absent without permission. Universities must keep records of international students’ contact details and a copy of their biometric residence permit, and, perhaps most significantly, must formally monitor attendance. Institutions which do not fully comply have their right to sponsor international students withdrawn and lose a valuable source of revenue.

In singling out international students, such demands risk contravening institutional equality and diversity policies. The preferred solution is often to monitor the attendance of every student to avoid accusations of unequal treatment. This imposes additional, time-consuming procedures upon university staff and, worse, it undermines the long-held assumption that students are adults, in charge of their own learning and free to determine for themselves the extent of their participation.

There are of course cases of British university students, or recent graduates, being implicated in high-profile terrorism offences. But given that almost half of all school leavers now take up a place at university, this is hardly a surprising correlation. At issue is whether the damage to higher education and academic freedom that will undoubtedly result from the proposed legislation is likely to be justified by a drop in the number of students becoming radicalised.

Anyone who has followed spiked’s Down with Campus Censorship! campaign will know all too well that today’s universities are hardly bastions of free speech. Every week seems to throw up another instance of a speaker being no-platformed, or a song, newspaper or student society being banned. Such censorship has a long and ignoble history and, although panics about student radicalisation are often overblown, it is clear that restricting free speech on campus has done little to prevent the instances of radicalisation that do occur.

Current restrictions on free speech are largely driven by a desire to avoid offence and dissent. Today’s universities operate under a self-imposed consensus where all views are afforded equal respect, except for those considered too beyond-the-pale to be aired at all. This simultaneously removes dangerous ideas from public discussion and prevents them from being challenged, while at the very same time respecting backward religious practices such as gender segregation as just an alternative, equally valid, perspective. This practice of banning but not condemning allows Islamic extremism, where it exists, to go unchallenged. What universities really need is an end to all restrictions on debate and the creation of an intellectual climate that encourages rigorous criticism. They need to be places where the nihilism of terrorism is trumped by both a celebration of free speech and the passing of critical judgement.

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. She is also a lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent and the author of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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