Universities must protect ‘impressionable’ students from radicalization – Cameron

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron © Stefan Wermuth
British universities will soon take on a legal obligation to protect “impressionable young minds” from the lure of extremism and radicalization as part of the government’s ‘Prevent’ counter-terrorism strategy.

The government announced the move as Prime Minister David Cameron made preparations to chair a meeting of his taskforce dedicated to counter-extremism. The body was created in 2013 to fight radicalization in the wake of Fusilier Lee Rigby’s murder by two Islamic extremists.

Some university heads and student bodies have criticized Cameron’s plans, warning they will hinder free speech and prevent universities from hosting certain speakers. Others have been more welcoming, saying higher education bodies have a role to play in countering extremism.

Fears over the radicalization of vulnerable youngsters have soared in recent months, with growing numbers of students from Britain traveling to join terror groups in Syria and Iraq.

The government’s new counter-extremism measures, set to be implemented next week, will require university staff to vet speakers and ensure that those who hold extremist views are balanced by an opposing argument expressed at the same event.

Higher education outlets will also need to train employees to identify and offer support to young people deemed vulnerable to radicalization. Institutions found to be resisting these safeguards will be forced to introduce them under a court order.

Speaking ahead of Thursday’s taskforce summit, Cameron argued all public institutions must play their part in challenging extremist activities.

“It is not about oppressing free speech or stifling academic freedom: it is about making sure that radical views and ideas are not given the oxygen they need to flourish,” he said.

“Schools, universities and colleges, more than anywhere else, have a duty to protect impressionable young minds and ensure that our young people are given every opportunity to reach their potential.”

Following Cameron’s announcement, chief executive of Universities UK Nicola Dandridge said higher education bodies have an important role to play in promoting free speech and countering violent extremism.

“Universities have strong partnerships with the police and security services and have engaged with the government’s ‘Prevent’ strategy for a number of years,” she told the Financial Times. “This new duty is a continuation of that work.”

Universities Minister Jo Johnson urged higher education institutions to stop attacking the government’s counter-radicalization strategies and cease associating with controversial groups such as human rights group Cage.

Cage openly opposes the government’s Prevent counter-extremism program, warning it focuses solely on Islamic ideology, while ignoring a wide body of research revealing the extent to which social exclusion, inequality and other socio-economic factors can lead to radicalization.

In July, Cage submitted a joint statement backed by 200 academics, activists, legal and medical professionals criticizing the Prevent strategy.

“The way that Prevent conceptualizes ‘radicalization’ and ‘extremism’ is based on the unsubstantiated view that religious ideology is the primary driving factor for terrorism,” the statement said.

“Academic research suggests that social, economic and political factors, as well as social exclusion, play a more central role in driving political violence than ideology. Indeed, ideology only becomes appealing when social, economic and political grievances give it legitimacy.”

The government’s extremism analysis unit estimates a minimum of 70 events featuring “hate speakers” were conducted on college campuses in 2014. Downing Street says the majority of these events occurred at four London-based universities: Queen Mary University, King’s College, the School of Oriental and African Studies, and Kingston University.

Offending speakers were Hamza Tzortzis, who has reportedly called for an Islamic state, and homophobic preachers Haitham al-Haddad, Dr Uthman Lateef and Imran Ibn Mansur.

Earlier this year, ministers brought in wide-ranging powers to ensure public bodies such as prisons, NHS trusts, councils and schools carry a statutory duty to stop people from being lured into terrorist activities.

But the former coalition government was forced to abandon the proposal that universities ban extremists from addressing students on campuses after Liberal Democrat MPs raised concerns over citizens' freedom of speech.