Education secretary Ruth Kelly made a speech in September 2005, in which she encouraged British university chiefs to monitor militancy on campuses and report any suspicious activity to the correct authorities.
A report looking at the links between British higher education and militant groups supports this view, providing evidence that universities have such elements operating on campuses.1
Universities have, of course, always been hotbeds of political activity, more often than not innocuous. Furthermore, it is well known that external organisations have seen universities as recruitment grounds.
Whether it be communist spies at Cambridge or the far-left terror groups of the 1970s and 1980s, such as Action Directe in France, they all made great use of universities.
The situation today is as it was before, only now the enemy has changed and it is a new breed of militants who are preying on students.
A leaked secret government paper has suggested that the "British Muslims who are most at risk of being drawn into terrorism and extremism fall into two groups: first, those who are well educated with degrees, typically targeted by extremist recruiters and organisations circulating on campuses" and second "underachievers with few and no qualifications and often a non-terrorist criminal background".2
The evidence to support the argument that the universities are failing to address these threats is overwhelming. While some universities have tried to exclude militant groups from campuses, the fact is that these groups are adept at avoiding detection from university security officials. One commentator claimed of Hizb ut-Tahrir, that with 50 years of experience of running covert operations against repressive Middle Eastern regimes, the group would leave British universities with little chance of stopping them.
Meanwhile, the British National Party (BNP), while a legitimate political party, is in fact banned from British campuses yet has taken great efforts to recruit students to its cause. This has even extended to right-wing students infiltrating left-wing groups and passing on intelligence to interested parties. The BNP, Hizb ut-Tahrir and also Al Muhajiroun have all long been refused any support by the National Union of Students.
The Animal Liberation Front (ALF), while not known to recruit students, although it is comprised of many graduates, is targeting universities that are involved with any kind of animal testing. Oxford University, in particular, has been the subject of attacks, with activists accessing the personal information of current and speculative staff and students3 and firebombing a boathouse.4
Faisal Hanjra of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies declares: "There may be pockets of individuals who are operating on campus but they are not representative and they are insignificant in number -in fact they are often not students at all."5 All very well, but what about that insignificant number? Are they not worthy of examination.
Should they not be monitored? The memory of how four young men brought the whole of London to a standstill is fresh in our minds. A small group of people can have a success out of all proportion to its size; one only has to look at the successes of the ALF and its offshoots.
The decline in government funding is another reason why universities and colleges are suffering. Funding has declined by one-third in real terms since 1989 and the answer has been to focus, obsessively, in recruiting ever more students, particularly from overseas. As such, 38 per cent of all research students in the UK now come from abroad.
The care with which they are screened is shown by two different, but damning statistics. In 2003-04, 17,000 such students were offered places in Britain and entry visas, yet never turned up for study.
Second, many universities (but not all) have turned down a government offer to vet overseas students. Even though some 200 foreign scientists have been barred from working in Britain, which shows the scheme can work, many universities refuse to participate, arguing that it is an unnecessary burden and interferes with their academic freedom - and their success in filling their places.
A Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesman says that the system had been under review since well before the July 2005 terrorist attacks. He adds: "The major loophole with the scheme at the moment is that it is voluntary. If a university doesn't take part, it is theoretically possible for an Iranian student to gain an education in nuclear physics in Britain and become part of Iran's nuclear weapons programme. It is possible and very undesirable. The review is to see whether there is any way of preventing that. It could consider that the only way is to impose it by means of a legislative bill."6
Yet one noted university had concluded a deal with a state generally considered 'rogue' whose ambitions run counter to those of the UK to train a considerable number of its postgraduates in a subject of strategic importance. Apparently none were vetted.
No one is suggesting that British universities are riddled with terrorists, nor is anyone suggesting that the student population (especially the Muslim one) is withholding evidence about some terrorist plot. Nor are universities the only place where radicalisation occurs.
It is clear, however, that universities are not doing enough to monitor exactly who is operating on their campuses. University security officials repeatedly state that they do not want to investigate potential troublemakers, preferring to react to any crimes on campuses.
Furthermore, if militant activity is detected on campus and universities surely represent a place where radicals can be easily monitored, then those people who may be involved can be re-educated and shown that violence is not the way forward.
This is not as dramatic as it may seem. Speaking on the Today programme earlier this year, Baber Siddiqi, of the Luqman Institute spoke of how he worked with students that had been radicalised and had seen how the groups that operate on campus prey on the young. He said: "These groups won't specifically advocate violence but they will bring people to the edge and then create a pool of people that are susceptible for further recruitment. They have links to groups in the Islamic world who operate in conflict areas and who have similar ideologies and the transition from the first groups to the even more radical groups and getting involved in violence is a quick one."7
Despite opposition to the findings of this report and some of the comments levelled at them, Universities UK, the body that represents university vice-chancellors, says: "Universities UK is far from complacent on the issue, which is why we are updating our existing guidelines on extremism and intolerance on campus.
"The updated guidance will look at the range of hate crimes and intolerance on campus, with a strategic and practical focus on solutions that promote good relations, and guidance on dealing with situations that can impede good relations. This updated document was in its final draft stage, following a period of consultation, when the events in London occurred. The final publication will take these into account, and we expect to publish it in late autumn."
If there is no problem, as some university authorities have suggested, why would Universities UK feel the need to update their guidelines on extremism and intolerance?
The UK is not the only country dealing with this problem, nor should any one university feel vilified should anyone suggest that militants may in the past have operated on their campuses. After all, the UK government has recognised it, as has the government of the Netherlands, which believes that education needs to play a greater part in addressing the problem of militancy.
A report by the Netherlands' Ministry of the Interior says: "The tasks of the educational sector within the context of radicalisation problems are quite comprehensive. We may identify two distinct directions. Firstly, schools might play a role in the identification of radicalisation and informing the competent authorities. Secondly, they can obviously transfer and encourage the internalisation of the Western democratic ideas on legal order."8
Several university security officials noted, that due to the rising cost of higher education, students may well demand better value for money while at university. Certain groups of students will be put off if they believe that a particular university has other students who are hostile to their skin colour or religion. One day, it may well be their purchasing power that will drive the rethink of security in British universities.
Chris Pope is the editor of the RUSI/Jane's Homeland Security and Resilience Monitor
1 The report was written by Professor Anthony Glees, of the Brunel Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies and researcher Chris Pope, and published by the Social Affairs Unit in September 2005.
2 'Home Office: Relations with the Muslim Community.' The Sunday Times, 10 May 2005.
3 'Activists access university staff details.' Oxford Times 20 May 2005.
6 Phil Baty and Paul Hill, 'Crackdown on campus,' Times Higher Educational Supplement, 22 July 2005.
7 The Today programme, BBC Radio 4, 24 August 2005.
8 'From dawa to jihad: The various threats from radical Islam to the democratic legal order,' Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations, p51.