New policies being recommended to prevent extremism on campuses are aimed at the wrong target and could promote division and fear within the student body.
There are times in life – and politics – that you encounter a straightforward lie. Saddam Hussein has nuclear weapons. The local council is giving asylum seekers free mobile phones. But more often than not the lies come walking sideways, like a crab. Such lies are harder to refute. They are not altogether without any starting basis in some shred of a factual situation. But neither are they true.
Take this early sentence in a new consultation document (The Role of Further Education Providers in Promoting Community Cohesion, Fostering Shared Values and Preventing Violent Extremism) recently published by the Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills, ‘We recognise that colleges face similarly complex issues with regard to the activities of the extreme far right, animal rights activists, anti-semitism, Islamophobia as well as wider issues of race, faith, sexual orientation and gender intolerance. These problems, however, do not present the same scale of threat as Al-Qa’ida-influenced violence.’ (p.2)
A greater threat to students?
A greater threat to students? One way to measure a threat would be to estimate the number of people affected. There are 400 Further Education Colleges in Britain, with very roughly four million students between them. Surveys of lesbian and gay lecturers suggest that between 25 and 40 per cent describe harassment, as a result of their sexuality. Among lesbian and gay FE students, the percentages to have encountered harassment are unlikely to be lower. Even on the most conservative estimate, this problem must affect tens of thousands of students each year.
Still greater numbers of FE students of course face sexual or racial harassment.
The one report to have been published in the last ten years on the extent of extremist activities in Further and Higher Education was written by Professor Anthony Glees of Brunel University in 2005. The Glees report was flawed. Its working methodology was to search through acres of newsprint for any single record of Islamist activity. Whether an incident had occurred in the past month or the past decade, the institution involved was then named and shamed as an organisation at which extremists were present. Glees appeared to overstate the case. He identified only twenty-three educational institutions as targets for radical Islamists. Of this list, twenty-two were universities, and one was a secondary school. But even Glees could not find a single reported incident of an Islamist (let alone Al-Qa’ida) organisation operating on any FE campus in Britain.
The anti-democratic threat
Perhaps the Department has in mind a different kind of threat, the threat posed to democracy by the existence of organisations that are radically opposed to free speech, that believe in the oppression of women, and have twisted notions of racial and religious incompatibility. The mere existence of such organisations diminishes us all, it could be said, even where the numbers involved are small.
The British National Party claims to have members in 100 universities and colleges. Members of the BNP, including a former senior officer, have been convicted of terrorist activities. The lecturers’ union UCU takes at least one call a month from members of the union, including Black, women, and disabled lecturers who allege to have been harassed by BNP members. But according to the document it is Al-Qa’ida that we are supposed to fear.
If it were simply a matter of the wrong premise, then the document would be unmemorable. But from this premise, all sorts of practical suggestions are made.
Colleges are invited to monitor the activities and leadership of religious-based student organisations:
‘The overwhelming majority of faith-based student/learner organisations are moderate and democratic groupings that seek to provide students/learners with accurate information on religious beliefs, history and civilisations, as well as organising prayer meetings, speakers and other activities. These societies can have an influential role within a college with members varying in numbers across institutions. For those who are members, these societies can wield significant influence in their lives through organising liturgical and other activities. It follows that should control of a university or college society or other group fall into the hands of extremist individuals, this can play a significant role in the extent of extremism within a college.’ (p.36)
Colleges are invited to monitor the content of talks given by outside speakers:
‘Student/learner groups commonly hold debates and talks on a variety of issues and often invite speakers or preachers into colleges. This is an important part of encouraging vibrant debate and discussion about issues of concern. However, on occasion such speakers hold very extreme views which could include advocating and justifying the use of violence. These individuals can be forceful, persuasive and eloquent, and often have a scholarly background, the latter fact being emphasised in order to give them greater credibility in the eyes of students. They seek to exploit feelings of alienation and sometimes offer “religious” justifications for extreme actions. It is increasingly likely that speakers would be careful to keep their messages within acceptable limits while speaking at college meetings.’ (p.36)
Putting Muslims under scrutiny
In the above examples, Further Education colleges are invited to distinguish between moderate and radical students. Some of this thinking is purely reflective of the new world since September 2001, in which Muslims are required to profess their loyalty to the West. Those who do so repeatedly are moderate and acceptable. Those who think, for example, that the war in Iraq was illegitimate, are not acceptable. They are radicals, and the only appropriate place for them is jail.
In both the above examples, however, this familiar premise is given an additional twist. Radical Muslims, like Communists in 1950s America, are chiefly remarkable because they organise covertly. Particular care must be taken to scrutinise moderate organisations, because even moderate organisations are constantly in danger of falling to the extremists. Colleges have to, according to the document, understand that a moderate message expressed on campus is merely the prelude to a militant message expressed off-campus, away from public view.
One danger, the document suggests, is college staff. Some will not have had the proper training. Others, for any reason, may fail to report their students to the police:
‘It is important for the police (and wider community) to have confidence that a local college can recognise if it has a problem and ask for help. In order to assess this capability it may be useful for colleges to consider the following questions:
- Can staff identify violent extremist behaviour?
- Do staff have the confidence to report it within the college?
- Does the college have the processes in place, and the willingness, to get that information to the police?’ (p.42)
The only hope for the future lies with much greater monitoring of students and campuses by police and the security forces:
‘If the police require information from a college then they will make a request for it. A court order is not necessarily required before a disclosure can be made to the police, although if a college receives such an order it must be complied with. Most Police Forces will have their own request form which should always include a brief outline of the nature of the investigation, the student/learner’s role in that investigation, the signature of the investigating officer and will, if necessary, provide how the request is compatible with the Data Protection Act 1998. Disclosures should be made in writing rather than over the telephone.’ (p.39)
The brave new world proposed in this document is one of greater surveillance of students, including greater surveillance by both lecturers and police. The document identifies the wrong problems and it proposes the wrong solutions. It would promote a climate of division and fear on campus. It is a wretched piece of work.
Make your feelings known
Its present status is policy recommendation. It is now subject to public consultation. Responses can be submitted by email to: College.COHESION@dius.gsi.gov.uk. Anyone is entitled to respond, including FE students, FE lecturers, and members of the public. The consultation closes on 6 May.