KU Vice-Chancellor Julius Weinberg has told the government they are putting universities in an impossible position with the new Counter-Terrorism and Security Act.
Weinberg was one of the 13 University Vice-Chancellors to co-sign a letter to the Daily Telegraph, published on March 9.
“We believe universities will be placed in an impossible position if they are expected to ban speakers on the basis that they have ‘extremist’ views without a clear definition of the term,” the letter read.
“We urge the government to publish the revised statutory guidance that they want applied to universities so that this issue is subject to full consultation prior to the dissolution of Parliament.”
The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, which became law last month, puts the responsibility to prevent individuals from being drawn into extremism on organisations like universities.
The Act has been designed after British authorities found out that ‘Jihadi John’ (Mohammed Emwazi) only recently graduated from Westminster University.
Anthony Glees, who is the author of The Journal for Policing, Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism and a politics professor at the University of Buckingham, said that Islamic societies at universities should be monitored in order to prevent extremism.
“The fundamental issue is that clearly, in the UK at the moment, is just evident to anyone who is watching this that there is a wave of jihadist madness sweeping through a small but significant sector of the British Muslim population,” Glees said.
“When it comes to the radicalisation, there is a massive amount of evidence to show that people who go to university can include people who are very impressionable and whose minds can be turned away from the basic values.”
The law is an addition to a series of counter-terrorism laws since the 2000 Terrorism Act. Under the existing Prevent strategy, universities already have to book and check external speakers for societies.
The security minister, James Brokenshire, said that 45 per cent of terrorists convicted for relations with Al Qaeda in the UK had had higher education, which means that people who go to higher education are 20 per cent more likely to become extremists.
In January 2014, 24 Vice-Chancellors, including Weinberg, wrote a letter to The Times, in which they asked the government to exempt universities from any responsibility to prevent extremism.
“The government is afraid to push universities,” Glees said. “Universities are big business. Last year, the national turn-over for higher education was 27 billion pounds.
“Students have to stand up and understand that academic freedom is not the freedom to invite political extremists onto campus to deliver extreme messages and invite people. Academic freedom is about discussing academic issues in peace with other academics.”
The vice-chancellors who signed the letter and other leading figures in higher education think they are already doing enough to prevent extremism on campus.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “The sector has engaged extensively with the government’s Prevent agenda and there are strong partnerships with the police and security services.
Paul Thomas, author of Responding to the threat of violent extremism- Failing to prevent?, said that universities are not the only aspect of society that might fuel radicalisation.
“What academics agree on is that there is no clear model of radicalisation,” Thomas said. “You cannot say it is one factor or one experience or one type of group that can be identified as a prediction of who will go on and get involved with violence.”
Thomas also argued that universities now play a smaller role in students’ lives because more young people now attend university, and an increasing number of students still live with their parents during their degree.
“I think there must be a certain amount of free speech on university campuses unless the speech is actually inciting hatred or inciting violence, we have to encourage that free speech,” Thomas said.
The debate after the identification of Emwazi has also been focused on the state of free speech at universities, which has recently been under fire after an online magazine found out that 80 per cent of universities restrict free speech.
In January 2014, the Vice-Chancellors had already said: “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.
“The new statutory duty should not apply to universities and they should be exempt, as proposed for the security services and judicial bodies.”