The issue of extremism on university campuses has been part of the public debate since the 7/7 attacks, and comes under new scrutiny every time an individual involved in violent extremism is found to have studied at a UK university.
In 2011, the revised Prevent strategy declared there was “…unambiguous evidence” extremist organisations targeted specific universities with the aim of radicalising students, and this conclusion was supported by the government’s Extremism Task Force in 2013.
This autumn, the new Counter-Extremism Strategy once again highlighted concerns about the sector – pointing out that “some universities have been the focus of attention by extremist speakers” – yet also suggested that institutions have a role to play in exposing and challenging extremists.
The most serious examples of connections between higher education and extremism are the terrorism offences committed by students studying at UK universities, as well as the graduates convicted that appear to have been partly radicalised during their studies.
However, there is also evidence of a culture conducive to non-violent extremism on a number of UK university campuses.
This manifests in the invitation of extreme or intolerant speakers; the sharing of extreme material via the social media pages of student societies; or the targeting of institutions by Islamist or far-right activists.
This year, the government has moved to put attempts to challenge extremism on university campuses on a statutory footing – with the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill giving universities a legal duty to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.
This came into force on-campus on 21st September, but has seen significant pushback from students, building on already existing antipathy to Prevent.
An ongoing campaign organised by a faction within the NUS, ‘Students not Suspects’, has encouraged students to boycott Prevent; invited extremists onto campuses; spread false claims about students being arrested or Prevent targeting those who oppose UK foreign policy; and made unsubstantiated accusations of racism, Islamophobia and even colonialism.
The campaign has also seen the NUS Welfare Campaign refuse funding from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills for work on campus cohesion.
On an individual level, I have spoken to Prevent officers who have found student union staff difficult to engage with, or who have had recommendations to mitigate risk as simple as ‘have a neutral chair at events’ rejected.
Developing policies to challenge extremism and safeguard vulnerable people, as well as dealing with the overt opposition to these efforts from student activists, are just two of the challenges facing institutions – and this is before vital considerations about the sector’s legal duty to protect freedom of expression are taken into account.
While these challenges are difficult, they are not insurmountable – and I look forward to seeing how the resourcefulness of the sector comes to terms with them during 2016.