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General Articles
Academic Freedom in Great Britain in the Age of Terror


Editorial Note

Britainhome of a large Muslim population, has struggled with home grown terrorism since the early 2000s.  Surprisingly, a number of high profile attackers were radicalized or recruited while being students. For instance, the infamous “underwear” bomber Omar Faruok Abdulmuttalab attended University College London and Roshonara Choudhry, who tried to kill MP Stephen Timms, was an honor student at King's College London.

To fight this phenomenon, the Labor Government of Tony Blair launched the Prevent program, a list of rules and regulations to stem radicalization on campus.  Backing up of Prevent was intelligence gathering and policing of groups and individuals deemed to contribute to radicalization.  


A review of Prevent by the Conservative government introduced more limitations on extremist speakers on campus, a bone of contention between the government and professors and students concerned about academic freedom.


But it was the growth of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that added urgency to the debate.  The self-proclaimed Caliphate that rules swaths of Syria and Iraq is in dire need of medical doctors and information technology experts.   According to sources, ISIS is also searching for nuclear scientists in order to work on its budding nuclear and radiological program.   ISIS recruiters have successfully operated on British campuses, finding volunteers among radicalized students. Worth noting also that the National Union of Students refused to condemn ISIS


Under Theresa May, the Home Secretary, the new guidance adds: “When deciding whether or not to host a particular speaker, [higher education institutions] should consider carefully whether the views being expressed, or likely to be expressed, constitute extremist views that risk drawing people into terrorism or shared by terrorist groups.” In another limitation, events deemed potentially radical would be allowed to take place only if they can be challenged by contending views.


The new directive has already mobilized academics who sent a petition to May complaining about restrictions on free speech on campus.  To many activist faculty and students who host controversial speakers, the need to balance panels with counter views seem especially onerous and intrusive. Long accustomed to one-sided presentations, they are prepared to challenge the government on this and other issues embodied in the updated Prevent.    

While Britain is the epicenter for Islamist radicalization and subsequent terror recruitment, the new Prevent is a model for a larger discourse about academic freedom in the twenty first century where terror groups combine real violence with a sophisticated war of ideas.  It is thus highly ironic that there should be opposition to balanced presentations, a key element of Prevent, an idea which originated by Wilhelm von Humboldt, in nineteenth century Germany.  



Financial Times

September 17, 2015 12:02 am

UK universities face legal duty to halt student radicalisation

Helen Warrell, Public Policy Correspondent

UK universities face a new legal duty to stop students being radicalised and to tackle gender segregation on campuses.

The plans are part of a government drive to make academic institutions responsible for protecting “impressionable young minds” from the lure of extremism.

The announcement came as David Cameron prepared to chair a meeting of his extremism taskforce, set up two years ago — after Fusilier Lee Rigby was murdered by two Islamist terrorists in south-east London — to combat the threat of radicalisation.

“All public institutions have a role to play in rooting out and challenging extremism,” the prime minister said before Thursday’s taskforce summit.

“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.

“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.”

The new measures, which are due to come into force this month, will require universities to vet speakers thoroughly and make sure that those espousing extremist views are countered by an alternative argument put forward at the same event.

In addition, higher education bodies will need to train staff to identify and support youngsters at risk of radicalisation. Any institutions shown to be resisting such safeguards will ultimately be compelled to comply by a court order.

At least 70 events featuring so-called “hate speakers” were held on university campuses last year, according to the government’s extremism analysis unit. Downing Street said that most of these occurred at four London institutions: Queen Mary University, King’s College, the School of Oriental and African Studies, and Kingston University. Events included the hosting of six speakers who are on record as expressing views “contrary to British values”.

Ministers introduced wide-ranging powers this summer to ensure that public bodies — including councils, prisons, NHS trusts and schools — are placed under a statutory duty to prevent people being drawn into terrorism.

However, under the preceding coalition government Theresa May, home secretary, was forced to abandon proposals that would have forced universities to ban extremists from speaking on campuses, after the Liberal Democrats raised fears that this would impede freedom of speech.

Concerns over the radicalisation of students at school and university have grown as increasing numbers of youngsters from Britain have travelled to join terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq. Some reports have also suggested that Mohammed Emwazi — the suspected Islamist murderer known as “Jihadi John” — may have been radicalised while studying in London.

Responding to the prime minister’s announcement, Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said higher education institutions had an important role to play in preventing violent extremism and promoting free speech.

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

But she emphasised that universities “must continue to be places where controversial subjects can be discussed openly, and flawed or dangerous ideas challenged”.

“All universities have protocols and procedures . . . that have to be satisfied before external speakers are given the green light to speak at a campus event,” she said.



Universities will be allowed to host extremist speakers – within limits

External speakers at campuses must share platform with opponents under compromise on government’s Prevent counter-extremism strategy

Alan Travis Home affairs editor 

Saturday 18 July 2015 00.55 BST

University campus meetings which give a platform to extremist speakers will only be allowed to go ahead if they are to be directly challenged by somebody with opposing views at the same event, under compromise counter-extremism proposals agreed by the government.

The new redrawn statutory duty on universities to prevent staff and students being drawn into terrorism no longer requires potential external speakers to provide a detailed script in advance for vetting but colleges will be able to insist that “high-risk” meetings do not take place without proper notice being given first.

The new official rules do spell out that meetings should be banned if there is any doubt that the risk of “drawing people into terrorism” cannot be “fully mitigated”.

The home secretary, Theresa May, also retains a power of last resort to issue a ministerial direction backed by contempt of court proceedings against universities that refuse to implement the new counter-extremism rules on external speakers.

They also make clear that university staff are expected to recognise the signs of radicalisation among their students such as changes of outlook and behaviour and to report them appropriately.

A rightwing thinktank, the Henry Jackson Society, said this week that more than 100 on-campus events hosting speakers with extreme views or a history of involvement in extremist organisations have taken place each year since 2012. Its definition of extremist includes speakers who suggest that there is a western war against Islam; who support individuals convicted of terrorism offences; or who express intolerance of non-believers and/or minorities.

At the same time an open letter signed by more than 40 academics, led by Prof Ruth Lister, was published warning that the Prevent strategy, which is largely directed at Islamist extremism and the far-right, is having a chilling effect on open debate, free speech and political dissent.

The resolution of the long-running battle over the management of external speakers at universities comes as David Cameron and May prepare on Monday to detail the next stage of their counter-extremism strategy to target “the full spectrum” of violent and non-violent extremist ideology. However, detailed work continues on giving Ofcom stronger powers to prevent extremist views being broadcast.

The new legal duty for higher education institutions makes it clear they are expected to follow existing Universities UK guidance – which requires strict vetting of proposed meetings involving external speakers including risk assessments and background checks conducted for those deemed higher-risk. The guidance leaves it to each individual university to decide what period of notice is required before a contentious meeting is allowed to go ahead.

The new guidance adds: “When deciding whether or not to host a particular speaker, [higher education institutions] should consider carefully whether the views being expressed, or likely to be expressed, constitute extremist views that risk drawing people into terrorism or shared by terrorist groups.

“In these circumstances the event should not be allowed to proceed except where [higher education institutions] are entirely convinced that such a risk can be fully mitigated without cancellation of the event. This includes ensuring that, where any event is being allowed to proceed, speakers with extremist views … are challenged with opposing views as part of that same event, rather than in a separate forum.”

The new official guidance adds that where there is any doubt universities should exercise caution and not allow the event to proceed. 

External speakers play an important role in university life, not least in encouraging students to challenge other views

Nicola Dandridge, the Universities UK chief executive, said: “Universities have engaged with the government’s Prevent strategy for a number of years, and the new guidance is a continuation of that work. Universities UK fed in to the consultation process on early versions of the guidance and will continue to engage with universities and government on its implementation.

“Universities UK’s priority will be to ensure that universities take all necessary steps to prevent violent extremism, and secure free speech. It is not one or the other. External speakers play an important role in university life, not least in terms of encouraging students to challenge other people’s views and develop their own opinions,” she said.

May originally wanted to see an outright ban on extremist speakers, including non-violent extremists, being given a platform on university campuses backed by contempt of court powers in reserve for any university vice-chancellor that refused to implement the ban.

The House of Lords refused to approve this and insisted that universities’ academic freedom and duty to freedom of speech be given equal legal weight to the new duty to prevent staff and students being drawn into terrorism, leading to the compromise solution.

The new rules to be implemented under the 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act will come into effect subject to approval by both houses of parliament this autumn.

John Hayes, the security minister, said: “The new Prevent duty is about protecting people from the poisonous and pernicious influence of extremist ideas that are used to legitimise terrorism.

“The issue of how universities and colleges balance the Prevent duty with the importance of academic freedom is an extremely important one.

“We have now issued draft guidance for higher and further education

institutions on managing external speakers. The guidance makes clear that speakers with extremist views must not go unchallenged.

“The duty will commence for universities and colleges once the guidance has been approved by parliament.”

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