Is it extreme to make universities combat extremists?

A loudhailer next to a blackboard Image copyright Thinkstock

Europe is reeling from the Charlie Hebdo killings - something that Home Secretary Theresa May described as an attack on freedom and democracy.

Yet the coming fortnight will see a Parliamentary battle over how the principles of freedom apply to universities in an age of global terrorism threats.

That battle comes down to the extent to which universities should be expected to root out extremism from their campuses - and how much power the government should have to intervene.

The Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, which is in its final Parliamentary stages, creates that power for ministers to step in.

I have blogged before about how its primary purpose is to "disrupt" rather than to prosecute - and this is where the universities come in.

It will place a legal duty on public bodies including universities to have "due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism'. That's legalese for taking steps to boot extremism off campus.

But while all the attention has been on separate plans in the bill to exclude some British nationals from returning home, opposition is mounting - against the clock - to a measure that critics say is an assault on academic freedom.

The core aim of these proposals is to keep terrorist recruiters off campus, echoing long-standing concerns of some academics and security analysts, such as Professor Anthony Glees.

He has spent years warning that institutions can unwittingly become the breeding ground for extremism.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Abu Hamza pictured in 1999: Preacher among many extremists who has targeted students

Ministers would be able to issue guidance to universities - and if an institution fails to act, the Home Secretary could order them to do so.

If they ignore that direction, they could end up before the High Court.

Critics say that the power being given to the Home Secretary is so wide that it would turn lecturers into spies.

Academics could, warn some, be required to create schedules of their students' political or religious activity, vet their research, limit the topics they want to teach and debate.

Lecturers could even find themselves under investigation thanks to their chosen topic of academic investigation - which is what happened to Dr Rizwaan Sabir at the University of Nottingham six years ago.

Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill's "Prevent" duty

  • Creates a new duty on public bodies to "have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism"
  • Allows the Secretary of State to issue guidance to those bodies about how they should do it
  • Gives the Secretary of State power to order a public body to take specific actions
  • That decision taken on recommendation from officials on the cross-government Prevent Oversight Board
  • Failure to comply could lead to court action

Is there a terror problem in some universities? A former security minister and academic chief debate on BBC Radio Four's Today programme.

For its part, the government says critics have got the wrong end of the stick. It insists the legislation is focused on combating extremism that leads to terrorism.

It wants "active engagement" from academic institutions, including formal risk assessments on where and how their students may be drawn into terrorism, violent extremism and "non-violent extremism which can create an atmosphere conducive to terrorism".

Speaking during last week's Lords debate, Home Office minister Lord Bates said: "Nothing being brought forward today says that the government is going to tell any university who it should invite to speak.

"Nothing is going to tell any university who it should have on its faculty or in its student body. That is for the university to decide."

The draft guidance suggests universities should have a policy of 14 days advance notice for events or speakers so that they their intentions can be assessed.

It is at this point that critics predict ministers could intervene even if there is a legitimate academic reason for hearing from a speaker, no matter how unpalatable their views.

In a letter to The Times last month, 25 university chiefs said said the legislation is wrongheaded because institutions already adhere to national codes on combating extremism, including managing invited speakers.

"Universities are at their most effective in preventing radicalisation by ensuring that academics and students are free to question and test received wisdom within the law," said the letter.

And despite government attempts to reassure universities, opposition to the measure appears to be growing and is cross-party.

Among its most prominent critics are a former director of public prosecutions, a cabinet secretary and, perhaps most significantly, MI5's former chief, Eliza Manningham-Buller.

Image caption Eliza Manningham-Buller: Warning over measure

Now chairman of Imperial College London, the baroness sits in the House of Lords as a cross-bench peer - and she attacked the legislation in last week's debate.

"I am afraid that it is a profound irony that we are seeking to protect our values against this pernicious ideology by trying to bar views that are described, too vaguely, as "non-violent" extremist - but which fall short of incitement to violence or to racial or ethnic hatred—which is already forbidden by law.

"The voicing of these opinions, some of which have been mentioned, such as those against the rule of law, democracy, civil society, women's rights and so on is, of course, often offensive and insulting to people.

"But we have been reminded only recently that we have a right to insult and we should avoid double standards."

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