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November 08, 2005

Universities UK and Campus Extremism: why politically correct platitudes will not solve the real problem of campus extremism

Posted by Anthony Glees

In September - to much media attention - the Social Affairs Unit published When Students Turn to Terror: Terrorist and Extremist Activity on British Campuses by Prof. Anthony Glees, Director of the Brunel Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies. Since then Universities UK - the representative body of British universities - rather than tackling the problem of campus extremism or engaging in serious debate, have sought to rubbish the report.

Under the supervision of Prof. Les Ebdon, Vice Chancellor of the University of Luton, Universities UK have now updated their own guidelines on how higher education institutions should tackle hate crimes and intolerance on campus: Providing Good Campus Relations: Dealing with Hate Crimes and Intolerance. Here Prof. Glees examines Universities UK's recommendations and finds them wanting. Prof. Glees argues - rather than rubbish his research - Universities UK should tackle the real problem of campus extremism.

Anyone reading the Universities UK report Providing Good Campus Relations: Dealing with Hate Crimes and Intolerance, (by Prof. Les Ebdon et al) expecting hardtalk about causes and dangers of campus extremism will be badly disappointed. Written in the most remarkable PC language, it is little more than a hazy list of admittedly well-meaning platitudes, based on hypothetical "case studies". Strong on weak bureaucratic advice, it lacks both clear security policy proposals, or lessons learned from the real historical evidence of the past ten years.

It will therefore not surprise that Ebdon's "core" Steering Group (as well as his "virtual" one) included members of various professional associations and trade unions (UNISON, JNCHES, AMOSHE, NAFTHE, AHUA) and an NUS representative but not a single security specialist, academic or (as far as one can see) managerial.

In his foreword, Ebdon stresses that his teams deliberations "considered and included" the terrorist attacks in London in July 2005 but decided that his guidance should "retain the original focus" Universities UK intended and therefore deal with "hate crimes and intolerance" on campus. Small wonder that his comments have so far received even less attention than would Hamlet without the prince.

There is nothing here on the problems posed by Islamist extremist groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir or Al Muhajiroun, said by reputable journalists to be active and openly recruiting on UK campuses (for example the Sunday Times, 16th October 2005, Time magazine, 25th September 2005 or the [Scottish] Herald, 7th October 2005). There is no discussion at all about the ways in which universities, in their frenzy to fill student places, have dropped their guard over admissions (for example in the refusal of many to vet overseas applicants or to require hard proof of identity for students admitted under Clearing procedures); nothing here on the need to introduce police and special branch officers onto campuses as underlined both in our report but most recently by John Vine, the Tayside Chief Constable, speaking last month at Dundee University (where one terrorist studied in the mid 1990s). Dundee is, of course, itself already the site of special branch liaison activities.

Indeed, apart from the mention of the London attacks, there is not much in this report about anything which has already happened. Its real focus is on hypothetical eventualities to be dealt with by a series of proposed courses of action. Indeed, Ebdon converts the extremist issue into one few will understand:

the terrorist attacks which have been claimed [sic] to have been caused [sic] in the name of Islam have led to significant increases in the number of attacks against people of the Islamic faith.
He adds that there have also been an increase in attacks on Jews stressing that:
as with instances of Islamophobia, such negativity [sic] can also affect the lives of Jews on HEI campuses.
Why does he not spell out that Muslims and Jews alike, along with the rest of us, are all equally at risk from Jihadism (and every other kind of violent extremism and terrorism)?

Ebdon's study implies there is an extremist problem, it is perfectly, true but it is only a problem by inference. Even the BNP, Combat 18 and the National Front, which he says (rightly) organise political intolerance are not said to be found on campuses (as they undoubtedly are) but merely to have:

attempted to organise within the political mainstream.
Of course it is right that universities should accept, as Ebdon does in echoing the Dearing Report of 1997, that universities should aim to:
play a major role in shaping a democratic, civilised and inclusive society.
Ebdon's wish to protect students from violence and extremism is also to be lauded. Finally, he is right to say that campuses:
need to be tolerant of a wide range of political views, regardless of how unpopular, controversial or provocative these views are.
This being so, what must surely beggar belief is the lengths to which Universities UK, (and Ebdon himself) have gone to rubbish our recent report - When Students Turn to Terror: Terrorist and Extremist Activity on British Campuses. Initially, a number of universities denied there was even a problem worth addressing (Swansea, Dundee, City and Luton, Ebdon's own institution where Afzal Munir, killed fighting in Afghanistan, was a student). They will presumably be binning Ebdon's report.

Our study used history rather than the hypothetical examples adduced by Ebdon for its case studies but both of us used newspaper evidence. More is the wonder that our evidence was immediately dismissed by Universities UK as "anecdotal".

Ebdon himself declared (on the 18th October 2005 edition of BBC Radio 4's education programme The Learning Curve of all places) that our report could be discounted because it was "widely discredited". Prof Drummond Bone, President of Universities UK, and a number of his close colleagues like David Rhind of City and NUS President Kat Fletcher have repeatedly accused us of making "unsubstantiated claims" about the links between campuses, terrorists and extremists. One (Sunderland) has even written to Brunel's Vice Chancellor in a vain secret attempt to get him to shut me up. At what price is Ebdon's so-called "tolerance of controversial views" trading at today? If, as I believe, he is a gentleman he should apologise for his hypocrisy on this vital matter.

In truth, neither he nor Universities UK have any idea of the strength of my own University's resolve to allow researchers to speak as they find. When Students Turn to Terror makes it clear that its conclusions and recommendations are based on deductions we make from the examples we examine. But Ebdon and his committees (real and virtual) should not be permitted to use their dislike of our proposals to rubbish the evidence we present, especially not without presenting any counter-evidence (as is normal in serious academic debate). Universities fear their admissions will suffer if they are seen to be aware of the reality of the extremist threat. They could not be more wrong. Students (and their mums and dads) are much more likely to want to attend a university which recognises there is a problem, and takes it seriously, than one which prefers to pretend none exists.

There is one other thing. Our recommendations chime closely with the anxieties expressed today by the Government in its fight against terrorism and extremism. Whilst Universities UK might believe that the materials we used are all the result of some gigantic conspiracy by (competing) British newspapers to tell lies about terror, do they also believe the Government is conspiring to the same ends? Perhaps they think the media are busy inventing the near civil war in France today itself an example of what happens when extremism is not confronted head-on.

To read an intemperate attack on When Students Turn to Terror and Anthony Glees, see NUS President Kat Fletcher's article for EducationGuardian.co.uk (7th November 2005): Fight fear with freedom on campus.

Professor Anthony Glees is Director of the Brunel Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies and co-author of When Students Turn to Terror, and (with Dr Philip H. J. Davies) of Spinning The Spies: Intelligence, Open Government and the Hutton Inquiry.


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