It has emerged this week that a government review of radicalisation policy, headed by Lord Carlile, will call for closer monitoring of students by University staff and lecturers. After Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a former student at UCL, attempted to blow up a plane headed for Dallas and British-based Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, a former Luton University student, detonated a suicide bomb in Sweden last December, questions have been raised about whether conditions exist at British universities that “might have facilitated” their transition to extremist ideology.

The idea has engendered a fierce debate between politicians like David Cameron, who last year announced in Parliament the urgent need to “de-radicalise” UK universities, and university staff and human rights groups, who claim that such policing and monitoring would violate the status of universities as a safe-haven for freedom of speech and open debate. The issue is thorny and complex. On the one hand, it seems irresponsible and complacent not to impose some form of monitoring on institutions where young people are often living alone for the first time, surrounded by ideas and experiences and at their most vulnerable to radicalisation. On the other, the importance of the university environment as a safe forum for debate and exploration of ideas of all sorts, including the opportunity for debunking and opposition of radical arguments, cannot be overestimated.

As Professor Malcolm Grant, Chairman of the Universities UK Review Panel says: “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.”

The problem, as Universities UK President Steve Smith explains, is to “consider how universities can work with all relevant organisations, nationally and locally, to ensure the protection of freedom of speech and lawful academic activities, whilst safeguarding students, staff and the wider community from violent extremism”.

But is this realistically possible? And is it fair for the government’s ‘Prevent’ program for anti-radicalisation to expect teachers and lecturers to be the ones responsible for ‘monitoring’ their students for signs of extremism? One suggested method, for lecturers to red-flag students whose essays contain repeated reference to extremist ideology, seems sensible, given the evidence that this has occurred previously in the cases of students who went on to be connected to known terrorist groups. Yet even this could be seen to damage the experience of university and studentship as a place where every idea may be explored and considered from every angle. It cannot be argued that a private essay being read by one lecturer equates to an incitement to racial hatred, nor can the academic practice of playing devil’s advocate for the purpose of thoroughly exploring extreme ideologies be ruled out.

There are some who would argue that a few mistakes and wrong accusations that could be easily explained and resolved are a small price to pay for national security. But the speed at which this could descend into a pool of racism, witch-hunts, accusations of religious prejudice and alienation of certain student groups is extremely dangerous.

Another proposal, for a “traffic-light-system” to be employed in monitoring and classifying the threat level of students thought to be becoming radicalised or exposed to extreme ideologies, presents yet further problems, with its implications of covert monitoring and ‘spying’ on students by university authorities.

On the other hand, James Brandon, spokesperson for the counter-terrorism think-tank the Quilliam Foundation, argues that “these kind of problems are everyone’s problem”. He claims: “just as university lecturers for example see it as their duty to tackle racism, sexism, homophobia, I think they should also feel it’s their duty to tackle radical, extreme and intolerant thoughts which are justified through Islamist ideology.” One interesting question is to ask whether monitoring and intervention might be seen rather as a means of protecting an individual student than an external security measure. When cast in that role the guidelines seem much more in keeping with the pastoral duty of university staff.

Whilst the preservation of university campuses as an arena for freedom of expression and passionate debate is not in question, the lengths to which university authorities should be involved in policing and monitoring these forums is very complex. Chairman of the UCL Council, Sir Stephen Wall, released a reassuring statement following the internal investigation into the university experience of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. He claimed that there was no evidence to suggest that it had been during his time as a student at UCL that he had become radicalised, and that all evidence collected by the enquiry pointed to a healthy and responsible student experience. Yet Brandon, without even having access to the internal investigative resources of the enquiry, dismissed the findings, providing evidence that as president of the Islamic Society Abdulmutallab had invited controversial and extreme guest speakers, prompting some members to compare the events to “brainwashing”.

This lack of engagement with the reality of the situation by a university council, even during a specific investigation after a major terrorist event, is rather alarming evidence of how out of touch many university authorities may be with the real goings on of the student body.

What do you think? We are keen to hear your thoughts on this contentious issue. Should university extremism be closely monitored and reported for the sake of preventing radicalisation for public safety or would it be a tragic infringement of the wonderful opportunity universities provide for safe and open discussion of all issues? Let us know using the comments box below.