Following criticism from students and university staff, on Wednesday it was agreed in the House of Lords that an amendment would be made to the proposed Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill.
This would mandate institutions to take into account their duty to protect freedom of expression when following new provisions to prevent students from “being drawn into terrorism”.
It was also reported that the statutory responsibility to challenge extremism on campuses – for example by opposing extreme speakers – will face a second Parliamentary vote in both houses.
Student unions have been passing motions opposing the bill in the past weeks, one of which states:“…any expectation by the state for academic staff to be involved in monitoring their students is deeply worrying”.
Meanwhile, on Monday, over 500 university lecturers signed an open letter which attacked what they see as “draconian crackdowns on the rights of academics and students” inherent in the bill.
Universities should be a place where extremist ideas can be debated, and it is understandable that students and lecturers are concerned about the implications of increased scrutiny.
However, this opposition is undermined by another incident this week, which has shown why it is so important universities are vigilant for signs of radicalisation.
On Tuesday David Souaan, a student at Birkbeck College, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison after being convicted of preparing for terrorist acts in Syria.
Arrested in May 2014 as he attempted to travel to the country, Souaan had already visited Syria in December 2013, and had shown other students pictures of himself with firearms.
Extremist material was also found on his computer and mobile phone – including video of a man’s throat being cut that was considered so graphic it was not shown in court.
During Souaan’s trial, his lawyer described him as “emotionally immature and naive”, and suggested university had caused him “loneliness and isolation”, something the judge concluded had left him “vulnerable to extremist views”.
Ensuring individuals in this position are identified and helped to turn away from violent extremism is hugely important, and portraying the bill as an assault on civil liberties overlooks a crucial safeguarding role.
Instead, it is vital universities see the provisions to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism as part of their duty of care – and the case of David Souaan as a demonstration of the cost of failure.