The Home Secretary, Theresa May, today pre-empted the publication of the revised Prevent strategy by criticising universities for their apparent “complacency” in tackling radicalisation and Islamic extremism on campus.
In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, May said:
“I think for too long there’s been complacency around universities. I don’t think they have been sufficiently willing to recognise what can be happening on their campuses and the radicalisation that can take place. I think there is more that universities can do”
For a Government that suggest that “we need a strategy that is effective and properly focused…” to tackle the problem of extremism, it is quite staggering that they have therefore chosen to merely regurgitate a much criticised and widely rejected policy suggestion of the former Higher Education minister, Bill Rammell. Back in 2006, Rammell put forward the idea that academics could “spy” on students they suspect of involvement in Islamic extremism and supporting terrorist violence.
Another example surely of the paucity of ideas that exists at the heart of the Coalition debacle.
Despite the regurgitation of New Labour offcasts, another question needs to be asked of May: what evidence do you have that radicalism and Islamic extremism is actually taking place on campuses across the UK. As she herself puts it:
“…recognise what can be happening on their campuses and the radicalisation that can take place”
What “can be happening” is significantly different to what is or even might be happening. And without evidence, it would seem that May and the Coalition are making simplistic and lazy assumptions rather more so than anything else.
And assumptions they would clearly seem to be given that the evidence being put forward is far from convincing.
First off, May states that more than 30% of people convicted of Al-Qaida associated terrorist offences went to university. What she seems to have overlooked is that around 40% of ALL young people go to university in today’s UK. Consequently, the number of people convicted and who went to university is less than the national average.
Second, it would seem that May overlooked a report by Universities UK which was published earlier this year:
“…the view of experts within government is that the higher education sector doe not currently have a major problem with violent extremism”
If the view of “experts within government” less than four months ago stated that British universisties did not have a major problem with violent extremism, on what basis are the charges being made?
May’s comments are symptomatic of the Prevent agenda: simplistic, sensationalist and unsubstantiated. And don’t forget, this simplistic, sensationalist and unsubstantiated exercise to solve the problem’ has categorically failed at the extortionate cost of millions.
Universities must challenge and ultimately reject the Coalition Government’s paltry attempts to scapegoat campuses as a cover for their own inadequacies and the lack of anything that reflects “a strategy that is effective and properly focused”. Universities have to be where open debates and discussions can take place, where a wide range of different – not prescribed – ideas and arguments can be aired and also challenged.
And because of this, we cannot be complacent in defending academic freedom. Or indeed rejecting the complacency of lazy and incompetent politicians. As the Universities UK report put it:
“Universities are open institutions where academic freedom and freedom of speech are fundamental to their functioning. Views expressed within universities, whether by staff, students or visitors, may sometimes appear to be extreme or even offensive. However, unless views can be expressed they cannot also be challenged”
In response to Theresa May’s comments about extremism on British campuses, I was interviewed by Phil Mackie live on the Shelagh Fogarty show on Radio 5 Live. This is available – for a limited time – on BBC iPlayer by clicking here.