The British government has updated its guidelines to help universities confront and combat violent extremism on campuses, less than two years after issuing an initial set of recommendations on the issue.
The new guidance follows a call last November from Prime Minister Gordon Brown for renewed discussion about how to maintain academic freedom at universities while preventing extremists from imposing their views or stifling debate.
The guidelines, in a report titled “Promoting Good Campus Relations, Fostering Shared Values and Preventing Violent Extremism in Universities and Higher Education Colleges,” reflect the government’s view that “the biggest current threat we face is from Al Qaeda-influenced terrorism” and that “the threat in higher education is serious but not widespread.” The earlier report examined various kinds of extremist activity, but the new document focuses most closely on Al Qaeda-linked terrorism.
The report warns universities to be vigilant about allowing segregated groups of students to flourish on campuses, saying that universities should not provide facilities as if they were religious institutions and that they “should balance any requests for separate facilities from religious and cultural groups with the need to ensure an integrated campus community.”
They should also set “clear institutional policies on external speakers” and share information among one another, the report says, “to ensure that an external speaker is not likely to promote or advocate violent extremism and that the university is able to make sure what is said falls within the law.”
Britain’s main student union praised the report’s focus on campus cohesion, but said that “far from promoting tolerance and integration, the guidelines focus disproportionately on Islamic groups at the expense of other extreme views. This risks encouraging universities to treat Muslims with suspicion, creating a climate of fear around one particular group of students.”
In its own statement the Federation of Student Islamic Societies in the UK and Ireland welcomed some of the guidelines, but urged academe to view “the extremist threat in its correct context.”
“There is no evidence to suggest that Muslim students at university are particularly vulnerable to radicalization,” it said, “nor is there any evidence to suggest that university campuses are hotbeds of extremist activity.”
The head of Britain’s main faculty union said that “staff are not trained to, and should not be expected to, police their students.” —Aisha Labi