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Are Universities an Easy Scapegoat in the Fight Against Extremism?

24/04/2014 15:57 BST | Updated 24/06/2014 10:59 BST

"We're bound by two things - freedom of speech and public safety." This view, shared by a university employee we recently spoke to, neatly encapsulates the intellectual bind that intellectual institutions presently find themselves in. One the one hand universities are supposed to be a haven for new ideas and free thinking and they value their independence greatly; on the other, like any public service universities must take seriously their responsibility to safeguard those under their care.

As part of a recent research project for Camden and Westminster Councils (funded by the Home Office), OPM and the think tank Demos were asked to conduct research into extremism in universities and investigate how universities and their partners were addressing the risk posed by extremists, including radical speakers.

Attentions on the role of universities providing a platform for speakers who spread hate or seeking to radicalise young people were renewed of late, when the Government's counter-terrorism task force declared: "Extremist preachers use some higher education institutions as a platform for spreading their messages." A survey conducted by Demos as part of this research found that half of students questioned having encountered someone with 'extreme views' on campus. This follows news that the Islamic Education and Research Academy held a gender-segregated event held at University College London last year. And elsewhere criticisms have been voiced that broadcasters including the BBC and Channel 4 interviewed the radical cleric Anjem Choudary in the wake of the murder of Lee Rigby.

Working with Westminster and Camden we spoke to representatives of the universities in the two boroughs, exploring the risks on their campuses and thinking of strategies which may help to manage and mitigate these.

The general perception held by those we spoke to in Higher Education is that high profile public portrayals of the sector as being a 'hotbed' for extremists (a view sometimes expounded by the media and influential think thanks), were unfair and undermined the good work being done to protect students in universities.

In support of this, it quickly became clear that that the most pressing risk is not from those planning a terrorist attack on campus or elsewhere, but rather of students encountering controversial speakers at events or debates where they preach hatred or intolerance. Such speakers may be the more 'provocative' or 'hard line' invitees of Islamic societies or Christian unions or those affiliated with the far right. Yet even this risk was by and large safeguarded against under existing legislation such as the Education Act, Equality Act and Public Order Act:

Indeed we found all the universities we spoke to implement very structured risk assessments for event bookings and the invitation of speakers and that when controversial speakers are invited to campus, universities adopt a wide range of approaches to mitigate their risk. These include: hiring of extra security staff; ensuring stewards and sabbatical officers attend to help maintain public order and make sure there is no breach of lawful speech; controlling admission by ticket or identity card or restricting attendance only to university staff and registered students.

It is clear then that many universities are doing a great deal to reduce the risk posed by extremist speakers on campus, a lot of which goes both unnoticed or unpraised. There is also a sense that while some universities have a long history of dealing with extremist threats, others do not have the track record and need help. To this end there is always room for improvement, and it was a strong recommendation in our research for universities across the country to better share best practice examples of managing the risk of extremism and develop peer support networks that help these to be implemented.

But the perception of universities as an unwilling partner, or worse, in the fight against extremism has, at least in the boroughs we visited, been shown to be unfair and undeserved. In 2010 a study for the Centre for Social Cohesion purported that more than 30 percent of 124 people convicted for Al Qa'eda-associated terrorist offences in the UK between 1999 and 2009 attended a Higher Education institution. Yet as one respondent told us, whilst that may be true, "when you look at it in context there is no causative relationship there. There is nothing necessarily about the university experience that led them to be violently radicalised."

Donna Shalala a member of the Clinton administration and President of the University of Miami once said "You can't have a university without having free speech, even though at times it makes us terribly uncomfortable." So long as there are those who seek to radicalise the young and impressionable there will always be those who question institutions, which by their very nature, encourage students to acquire knowledge, engage with different points of view and yes, think radically. The risk of radicalisation this poses can never be eradicated. It can however be mitigated and managed, and in the universities we spoke to, we found that it is being, very effectively.

About OPM

OPM is an independent, employee-owned research organisation. We work with leaders, policymakers, regulators, commissioners and providers - as well as service users and communities - to ensure that public services are designed and implemented efficiently, effectively and in the public interest.