Roberta speaks on extremism in Higher Education
Roberta speaks on extremism in Higher Education

On Tuesday morning, I spoke at a Public Policy Exchange event on Safeguarding Against Extremism in Higher Education, along with speakers from the Department for Education, University College London Union, academics from the University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes University, as well as legal experts.

In particular, I spoke about the need for the higher education sector to strike a balance between responding to extremism whilst protecting academic freedoms. These freedoms to express, debate and challenge radical and often controversial ideas are a vital part of our free society, and are what allows UK higher education institutions to be among the most highly regarded in the world. Tackling extremism is of course a serious challenge, but the statutory policy response to this must be focused on violence and other illegal activity taking place on campus, in coordination with local authorities, the police, and communities.

This is a very important issue in Higher Education at the moment, and as Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Universities Group, I will continue to work with my colleagues and the higher education sector in Parliament.


You can read the full text of my speech on 5 September below.

Balancing the requirements of an open and democratic society while simultaneously safeguarding its diversity and values from those attempting to exploit this openness is an unbelievably difficult task. I believe that UK higher education plays an integral role in enabling this by providing our young people with the tools to critical thinking and a safe environment to freely engage with a variety of opinions. Importantly, the academic freedoms ingrained in this system allow for new and radical, if at times controversial and unpopular, ideas to be expressed, debated, and critiqued freely in an open setting. These freedoms are vital in our efforts to challenge insular echo chambers and to forge mutual understanding between differing points of view regarding all aspects of our society.

Freedom of speech in our higher education system is strongly protected by law, and it is the duty of our universities to guarantee this freedom for their members, students, employees, and visiting speakers. The legal framework on free academic expression is engraved in three important pieces of legislation. First, the 1986 Education Act forbids universities from denying the use of any premises purely on the grounds of any beliefs, views, policies, or objectives that an individual or a body may have. Second, the 1988 Education Reform Act grants individual members of the academia the freedom to question received wisdom and to put forward new and controversial proposals and opinions without the risk of losing their jobs or roles in their institutions. And third, the 2004 Higher Education Act gives academic institutions the freedom to determine the contents of the particular courses they offer. These freedoms guarantee the place of UK higher education institutions at the heart of our democratic society as independent centres of research and knowledge.

But we must keep in mind that the right to free speech is certainly not absolute. The exercise of free speech is always bound by law, and universities are under legal obligation to ensure that public order matters, such as the prevention of discrimination and religious and racial hatred, are adhered to in all campus events. In addition, criminal law constitutes an equally important boundary to the lawful exercise of free speech, as it is illegal for universities and student unions to provide a platform, for example, to anyone encouraging terrorism or inviting support for proscribed terrorist organisations.

Within these boundaries, I strongly believe that universities have an essential role to play within an open and tolerant society in providing a platform for open discussion and debate where even the most difficult of issues can be addressed in a civilised and academic manner.

This also the view taken by many within the academia – in 2015 over 500 academics from universities across the UK signed an open letter criticising the Government’s decision to impose a statutory duty on their institutions to actively prevent people from being drawn into extremism as ‘unenforceable’. Concerns have been raised in particular about the new requirement for universities to monitor non-violent extremism that in itself is not illegal. This has significantly obscured the previously established line between academic freedoms and the boundaries set to free speech by criminal and civil law.

The foundations of this new duty are written in the 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, which requires universities, among other institutions, to ‘prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’. With regard to higher education, the aim is to provide support for students at risk of radicalisation and to introduce policies to prevent extremist speakers from radicalising students. Importantly, however, this duty is intended to be fulfilled according to the legal framework set in the already mentioned laws on academic freedom.

The 2015 act also solidified the role of universities in the Government’s Prevent strategy, which is a part of the broader UK counter-terrorism policy originally established in 2003 and aims to provide support for people at risk of joining extremist groups. Alongside being vigilant and aware of potential radicalisation, universities must now also refer any suspicions about individuals at risk to a local Prevent authority.

Yet, although universities now have this statutory responsibility to tackle radicalisation on campuses and have issued guidance on how to combat extremism in line with the universities’ pre-existing duty of care, finding the balance between responding to extremism and maintaining academic freedoms is not that clear cut in practice. I would like to focus next on the potential issues that arise from this new duty.

First of all, we need to be clear and acknowledge that there is no single route to extremism or any certain visible signs of radicalisation. The Government’s ‘Raising Awareness of Prevent’ workshops, for instance, were criticised for reducing these supposed signs of potential radicalisation into mere visible signs of Islam, despite the fact that a quarter of all the cases the Prevent programme deals with have to do with far-right extremism. We should not expect university staff to be able to recognise any initial marks of possible extremism, if even national security officials have not yet been able to determine definite signs of brewing radicalisation. And our response to extremism certainly should not be Islamophobia.

There is a real concern that this obsession with a single path of radicalisation can make Muslim students in particular feel more marginalised and as a result erode the trust between Muslim and non-Muslim university staff and students, and that if we let this alienation to continue it might even unintentionally reinforce the extremist message that these minorities are somehow fundamentally incompatible with our open communities.

One of the most famous cases of false suspicion of terrorism that received international coverage and debate on the issues around the narrow line between responding to extremism and defending academic freedoms happened in 2008, when University of Nottingham student Rizwaan Sabir was detained by the police for seven days as a suspected terrorist after downloading an Al-Qaeda training manual from a US government website for his master’s dissertation research. After receiving £20,000 in damages for settling the case, Dr Sabir has since become a lecturer in criminology at Liverpool John Moores University, specialising in students at the risk of extremism and the challenges faced by those who research political violence.

Similarly, in 2015 Mohammed Umar Farooq, a postgraduate student of counterterrorism at the University of Staffordshire, was questioned and wrongly accused of potential links to terrorism by the university’s complaints official for reading academic textbooks on the topic of terrorism. He was later apologised by the university after three months of investigation.

These instances also illustrate the second point I would like to highlight regarding the issues present on how we expect universities to respond to the threat of extremism. The Government’s use of broad terms such as ‘radical’ and ‘extremist’ without sufficient precision in the legislation and implementation guidance has made it difficult for universities to know with enough certainty whether or not they sufficiently fulfil their statutory prevent duty. And precisely because this duty is so broad and relative unspecified, university personnel face the risk of misjudging cases only because of the fear of being found to be in breach of this new duty.

Extremism, for example, is defined in the Prevent strategy as ‘vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’, which raises a question whether active teaching and reading of the works of ancient Greek philosophers who strongly criticised democracy as a poor form of government would constitute an offense under this definition.

On a more serious note, however, this lack of clarity does raise possible concerns whether environmental, anti-austerity, and other politically dissenting campaigns could be affected by the poorly specified notion of radicalism. After all, a great number of radical ideas and movements have throughout history been associated with universities and students engaged with intellectual experimentation, and curbing the free flow of ideas in the name of security or offence could have serious consequences.

This is exactly why we need to be vary of the potential conflicts between our responses to radicalisation and defence of academic freedoms. Self-censorship and unnecessarily curbing the right to free speech solely based on possible disruption caused by unpopular or controversial topics are not helpful.

Examples of this self-censorship are numerous. In 2014 Christ Church College at the Oxford University cancelled a debate on abortion after complaints that both of the speakers were men, while in 2015 University of Southampton cancelled a conference on the State of Israel following an online petition. Last year, human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was refused platform at a debate by the Canterbury Christ Church University’s student union after the Observer published an open letter that Mr Tatchell had signed defending Germaine Greer’s right to free speech. These are not instances of extremism that we should curb our academic freedoms for.

Simply put, we cannot protect our society from those extremists who want to restrain our democratic freedoms by restraining our democratic freedoms. But we must learn from our mistakes to find the right balance between responding to extremism and protecting the openness and diversity of our higher education.

We must first acknowledge the important positive work that universities have done so far with their duty to respond to extremism while being mindful of the requirements of academic freedom. Universities UK has, for example, provided excellent guidance for universities to draft effective and clearly communicated procedures on how to deal with external speaker requests and help on how to regularly review these measures. Their Safe Campus Communities website allows universities to share real-life case studies on how to respond to extremism on campus, which helps with the coordination of strategies.

Moreover, I think that universities can be best utilised in our broader response to extremism as the leaders of research into terrorism and radicalisation. It is academic research after all that is used to identify the signs and causes of extremism, and all the evidence point towards socio-economic rather than ideological factors as the underlying conditions that give legitimacy to violent extremism.

It is the primary responsibility of universities to deepen our understanding of this interplay between the factors, and academic freedom to conduct this research is an integral resource in our efforts to understand and respond to violent extremism.

Importantly, we must have more faith in the ability of students and young people themselves to debate and criticise violent extremism. We should trust them with the challenging of extremist narratives on campuses and support them in this task, as it is the aim of higher education to raise independent critical thinkers who cherish the openness, tolerance, and diversity of our society.

We must also encourage universities to continue the building of relationships with student groups and local community leaders, the supporting of inter-faith activities, their work with local Prevent groups, and the implementation of IT policies to screen out illegal web browsing. Staff and students have also an important role in ensuring that campus debates are balanced and that events including speakers with extreme views also contain speakers who challenge these views.

We must understand that preventing extreme, unpopular, controversial, or radical views to be expressed publicly does not make them go away. It is therefore important that we focus our efforts on openly challenging the non-violent extremist viewpoints with the tools provided by free academic research and forums.

To accompany this free and open challenge of extreme ideologies, the focus of the statutory response strategies for universities should be on monitoring the signs of violence and other illegal activity on campuses, as well as on coordinating these responses with local authorities, from the police and teachers to community leaders. This way our universities can play their part in managing the risks associated with extremism with minimal damage to the ever-so valuable academic freedoms.

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