Educating against extremism in higher education

Given that a significant proportion of extremists of all persuasions are highly educated, with university level qualifications, it is not surprising the spotlight is on higher education institutions across the world with regard to their role in preventing extremism.

However, higher education institutions are probably the worst educational sites to establish definitive duties. Unlike schools, they are large, with students legally adults, less well known to staff and less amenable to control.

Quite rightly, in most countries higher education institutions have ethics around freedom of speech and academic freedom. But now in the United Kingdom the encouragement of terrorism and inviting support for a proscribed terrorist organisation are both criminal offences. The government has stepped up its security guidance to public bodies to make their duties in this regard statutory.

This is a key departure and a worrying one. It is not so much that this (in theory) criminalises vice-chancellors if their institution is deemed to provide a platform for such offences, but that the guidance is actually counter-productive.

Briefly, the new statutory duty under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act (2015) requires universities to have ‘due regard to the need to prevent individuals from being drawn into terrorism’. Compliance entails having thought-through procedures and policies, for example, with regard to visiting speakers, attempts at gender segregation, IT use and student organisations.

There must be a system for assessing and rating risks associated with any planned event, that ‘provides evidence to suggest whether an event should proceed, be cancelled or action taken to mitigate risk’ (such as having opposing views aired at the same event).

Higher education institutions should also be watchful of radicalised students who might radicalise others, on or off campus. In practice, this will mean that staff must report individuals suspected of being ‘potential terrorists’ to external bodies for ‘de-radicalisation’.


While the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act guidance does acknowledge the need to balance these duties and the right to freedom of speech or freedom of association, there has been a strong reaction by higher education institutions to the overall thrust of the Act, and to the government 'Prevent' strategy which it supports.

The critique has strong conceptual and practical bases.

First are the simplistic notions of extremism. Does ensuring ‘opposing views’ mean extremist versus moderate? Islamist versus far right? Sunni versus Shia? This is not clear. The government has a fixation on ‘extremist ideology’, the view that people are drawn into terrorism almost exclusively through ideology. Yet research suggests that social, economic and political factors, as well as social exclusion, play a more central role in driving political violence than ideology.

There are reports that Kenyan students are being recruited into Al-Shabaab because of the promise of money, in contrast to the prospect of unemployment even with a degree. If, in any country, recruitment is not always about ideology, then banning ideological speakers does not soften the appeal of money, adventure, status and all the other things that make joining an extremist group attractive.

No one route to extremism

In our social organisation ConnectJustice, we have just completed research interviewing former extremists – Islamist and far right – about their family backgrounds. This research confirmed that there is no one route into extremism, nor out of it: the conveyor belt theory does not hold up.

Families were not the only influence, if at all; and neither education nor church/mosque were protective of being ‘radicalised’, nor causal. As has often been found with young people going off to fight in Syria, it is hugely difficult to spot ‘warning signs’. Being on the lookout for longer beards, more conservative dress and Free Palestine wristbands only starts to foment racism and sows mistrust of Muslims.

Our ‘formers’ did join religious or political groups; yet joining a group with radical philosophies cannot be made a key marker to identify ‘potential’ terrorism – any more than joining the humanists, animal rights or the National Secular Society.

This leads to the second, practical issue of surveillance and definitions of what counts as ‘radicalisation’. The well-known case of a University of Nottingham student who was arrested for downloading an open source Al-Qaeda training manual for his dissertation shows that universities are not equipped to make good judgments on Internet use. Access to independent and transparent mechanisms of appeal would be needed when students and staff find themselves being accused of radicalisation.


Taken to extremes (!), large cohorts of students could be under suspicion. ISIS does want highly educated people – doctors, lawyers, IT people and strategists – to run their campaigns and fulfil their desire for a machinery of governance. There are theories that choosing a degree such as engineering or chemistry shows a preference for right answers which predisposes to radicalisation, or worse, that such subjects are deliberately chosen in order to learn the best destruction of buildings or bomb-making.

The latter is doubtful – three years is too long for most group entrants who by definition want new identities and missions now, not in some future time.

Our ‘formers’ research found far right extremists impatient with the normal political process, wanting quick solutions to what they saw as Muslim or Jewish takeovers of their community. In Somalia and Kenya, higher education institutions are the site of violent attacks by al-Shabaab, rather than the target of infiltration.

Higher education institutions cannot predict the use to which people put their degrees and should not try. However, the critique of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act approach as dysfunctional does not mean that such institutions have no responsibilities and no strategies.

Research, in which I am participating, on the higher education backgrounds of developmental leaders in the Philippines (part of a larger study, including Ghana) revealed some participants are concerned about extremism and the spread of ISIS. Their recommendations for higher education were interestingly not for surveillance, but for a broad-based, critical higher education experience for all students that included service in the community and political awareness of complex global issues – to build resilience.

Opportunities to mix and debate with students of all backgrounds and beliefs were seen to form another brake on singular views. Student activism and membership of political societies were also central in launching these leaders into their reformist trajectories.

This underscores the first and essential responsibility of higher education institutions, to ensure critical scholarship through a wide range of avenues.

A space to listen

Instead of diverting time and attention into even more risk assessment policies, the second responsibility relates to the ‘normal’ strategies of support for students – mentoring, personal tutoring and freedom from racism or harassment.

This is not in order to be able to ‘spot and shop’ potential terrorists, but to provide a space to listen. It may well be that higher education students are particularly vulnerable, being away from home for the first time; universities, unlike schools, are often not really part of their community, but occupy islands of somewhat artificial activity.

The strategy is to find out what is needed for inclusion – overall, good universities will continually consult with students, do surveys to collect their views, work with the Student Union, encourage student action in the community and have a raft of ways whereby any protection against extremism becomes a collaborative venture.

It is important that other countries do not look to UK higher education legislation as a yardstick. But nor should they look to China, where, according to a recent report, Chinese university students are to be forced to attend lectures on the speeches of President Xi Jinping to help drive them away from ‘Western’ ways of thinking. The lectures will promote the ‘Chinese dream’ (is this the equivalent to ‘British values’?). According to the People’s Daily, the talks are to ‘help students distinguish right from wrong in terms of ideology and political theory’.

Instead, higher education institutions should be places of fierce debate, arguments over right and wrong, and who says so. Rather than putting curbs on extremist speech, such institutions should be spaces where all views are given platforms in order to challenge them publicly.

There are already laws about hate speech and incitement to violence. More legislation in this area is not needed and may mean that political dissent becomes criminalised and will withdraw to unsupervised spaces. Safeguarding sounds benign, but it may make us less safe.

Lynn Davies is emeritus professor of international education at the University of Birmingham, UK, and director of ConnectJustice, an independent social enterprise whose focus is building trust and collaboration between communities, police and state agencies around extremism and exploitation.