Will anti-terror bill create a university Stasi?

Je suis Charlie! Je pense donc je suis Charlie! Je suis Ahmed! Mahomet est Charlie!

Godot has finally arrived. He is Charlie! Or is he? Those not swept away by the spectacle of mass resistance to the fear of terrorism last week in France might be forgiven (after all, according to Charlie Hebdo ‘all is forgiven’) for remembering the famous scene about individualism in The Life of Brian and satirising it thus: ‘We are all Charlie’. ‘I’m not!’

Peering through the mental mist arising from simplistic slogans displayed and chanted with football-crowd fervour in the streets of France, the gut-wrenching events of Paris last week have stirred up a vortex of searingly painful and mind-numbingly complex issues about maintaining freedom of speech, religion, cultural identity and human rights in a pluralist, officially secular Western democracy.

What are the limits to those rights when they impinge on the rights of others and offend deeply held beliefs and demonstrably incite prejudice and hatred? This is a classic liberal dilemma being played out with an emotional, political and homicidal intensity that JS Mill and Immanuel Kant could never have foreseen unless prescribed generous doses of laudanum.

By a curious piece of synchronicity such issues were being hotly debated by academics and fanatics (the two are not mutually exclusive) on a host of news websites just as Universities UK was publishing its policy briefing document Home Office consultation on Prevent duty guidance, its response to the government’s Prevent duty guidance: a consultation that was issued last month.

The context of the so-called ‘consultation document’ is the government’s determination to pass the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, whose radical implications for civil liberties were subjected to concerted criticism by such powerful voices as that of David Anderson QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation in November.

At the time, Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty and outgoing chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, warned that: “Even our universities must read from ministers’ scripts on radicalisation. Another chilling recipe for injustice and resentment by closing down the open society you seek to promote.”


The version of the bill which appeared on 26 November made no mention of universities, but already gave rise to concerns. For example, chapter 2 is titled “Support etc [the vagueness of the et cetera, banned in student essays, is revealing!] for people vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism”.

It stipulates that “each local authority must ensure that a panel of persons is in place for its area with the function of assessing the extent to which identified individuals are vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism”.

As clarification, it adds that “identified individual”, in relation to a panel, means “an individual who is referred to the panel by a chief officer of police for an assessment of the kind mentioned in subsection (1)(a)", and that “A chief officer of police may refer an individual to a panel only if there are reasonable grounds to believe that the individual is vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism”.

The failure of the Home Office, counter-terrorism agencies and legislative bodies to make sense of the social and psychological dynamics of Islamist terrorism 10 years on from 7/7 becomes painfully obvious in this passage. The model of the radicalisation process implicit in this language is that derived from the sexual grooming of ‘vulnerable’ minors.

Ou est Charlie?

The bill offers not a single paragraph that addresses the deeper causes of terrorism or the complex drivers of radicalisation, which often affects highly intelligent and outwardly integrated, successful, sociable individuals with no overt signs of psychological or social distress.

Yet the government somehow expects local authorities (awash with the material, temporal and human resources to tackle fearsomely complex social, psychological and cultural issues – not!) to create panels of people ‘qualified’ (no criteria for this are given) to ‘spot’ the budding terrorist and assess how far along the road of radicalisation he (or she) has travelled towards violence once identified as ‘vulnerable’ (again, no clarification is offered) by a chief of police.

Now, there may be a minority of chiefs of police with a sophisticated understanding of radicalisation as a search for identity, agency and purpose in a (for some) distressingly anomic modern world, and who can adroitly play the terrorist equivalent of ‘Where’s Wally?’ (called Où est Charlie? in France: you couldn’t make it up!). Otherwise attempting to ‘catch’ potential terrorists through this bureaucratic structure is more reminiscent of the swimming pool game Marco Polo.

The Home Office consultation document published on 17 December shows that Shami Chakrabarti’s words were prescient – except in one important respect: the proposed body for monitoring universities with the statutory duty to comply with Prevent is not the Home Office but the Higher Education Funding Council for England, or HEFCE, which should allay fears of the more Orwellian scenarios.

However, there is still enough food for thought in the guidance to give indigestion. Universities are expected to create an internal cross-department group under the aegis of senior management maintaining regular contact with Prevent regional coordinators, oversee risk assessment to identify ‘where and how students might be at risk of being drawn into terrorism’ and draw up an ‘action plan’ to address these risks.

But this is the ‘vulnerability’ issue all over again. There is no consensus amongst terrorism experts over the socio-psychological drivers of radicalisation (my reference to anomie above is just my own pet hobby horse), so how could a committee of non-experts realistically fulfil this statutory obligation?

Prevent awareness training

The onerous implications of the Home Office document do not end there. Institutions must demonstrate willingness to undertake ‘Prevent awareness training’. But, as someone who was involved in making the first version of the WRAP DVD to raise awareness of radicalisation among public sector workers, I can testify that there are major confusions within the Home Office itself about what the radicalisation process is.

The idea of staff being corralled into Prevent training days run by people with a limited grasp of highly contested and often conflicting models of radicalisation reminds me of the AA’s compulsory classes on speeding awareness offered as a substitute for a fine.

How can all staff “gain understanding of the factors that make people support terrorism” when experts working on this for decades are far from arriving at a workable consensus themselves? As for the need for universities to develop procedures for “sharing information about vulnerable individuals”: here we go again!

Finally, universities are expected to vet in advance the texts and visual material of all presentations from external speakers hosted by the university as well as clear policies dictating which online activities directly related to the university are not permitted. Shades of the surveillance society loom large, though we could invite IT consultants from China and North Korea to investigate the feasibility of this.

An academic Kapo

So will it be down to the funding council to check on how all the UK universities are getting on with their compliance strategies? Well, no, because the guidance document proposes that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills: a euphemism worthy of Robespierre and Saint-Just, “will use Prevent regional coordinators and other local providers (of what?) to determine how the duty is being implemented with in (sic!) institutions”.

Could it be that members of the Prevent team have been going to Iran to see how freedom of thought is being upheld there? So is the plan, after all, to turn HEFCE into an academic Kapo, the ‘functional prisoner’ of the Home Office?

Now I must stress that the Home Office oxymoronic ‘duty guidance’ is a consultation document and Universities UK are using a highly incisive policy briefing document to solicit reactions from universities which will inform the “sector-wide response to the Home Office’s proposals to be formulated by 21 January”.

So the consultation might still modify measures in the direction of intelligence and feasibility. Nor must we go into denial about the fact that UK universities have hosted abuses of its facilities for freedom of speech conducive to terrorist radicalisation in the past and should not react with indignation.

Certainly, there is no room for complacency and surely mediated consultation with the Prevent programme, the raising of awareness of the risks of campus radicalisation and the creation of broadly uniform structures to address it across the sector are necessary.

But equally surely, the main duty of UK Universities is not to collaborate supinely with the largely misconceived measures and assumptions of the Prevent programme, but to concentrate on the creation of a climate of liberal pluralist values inside and outside the curriculum with zero tolerance of any form of victimisation, racism or extremism, and of any incitement to hatred, prejudice or violence.

We must not be party to a University Stasi which keeps files on vulnerable students and discusses their stage of vulnerability to radicalisation in camera. If each university carried out an audit of its mechanisms and procedures for becoming aware of and dealing with the risks of campus extremism, it would be a step in the right direction for our sakes.

And if we proactively draw on the existing expertise on ideological extremism and fanaticism in its many forms distributed throughout our sector in a number of disciplines, we might one day be able to teach the Home Office a thing or two about radicalisation. That is if they are ‘vulnerable’ to our approaches to them.

Roger Griffin is professor of modern history at Oxford Brookes University, UK, and author of Terrorist’s Creed: Fanatical violence and the human need for meaning.


Dealing with UK universities and study there is already a huge pain in the arse for international students and academics.

Christopher Haggarty-Weir on the University World News Facebook page