How universities will beat extremism

The world feels like an increasingly frightening place for young people. With last year punctuated by a series of horrendous terrorist acts, 2016 already appears to be following suit. Similarly the outbreak of intolerant anti-refugee and immigration politics continues to embody the West at its worst as public comments undoubtedly shape the opinions – and potentially prejudices – of the next generation.

The aftermath of events such as 2015’s Paris attacks highlight the need to combat extremism and develop young people’s resilience to harmful ideologies while preventing them from being radicalised.

Extremism is more than stubbornness or a general intolerance towards others. It includes holding views that are at odds with the core beliefs of society. Radicalisation is where people adopt an extreme position in terms of politics and religion, an extremist ideology or move to violent action in support of their beliefs. Resilience is demonstrated by bouncing back from adversity and overcoming negative influences that block emotional well-being and achievement.

It is vital that universities take a lead in combatting the spread of misinformation, radicalisation and fear. This is only achieved when students can operate in a safe environment that allows them to ask questions and express ideas without feeling unwelcome or threatened because of race, religion, sexual orientation or any aspects attributed to minority groups.

Simplistic positions

It is difficult to avoid arguments for utilitarian education and thinking in reaction to terrorism and inflammatory public debate. From austerity-driven cutbacks insisting universities focus purely on employment as an end goal, through to extremist views on the plight of refugees – our fractured political arena is slipping into simplistic and sometimes offensive positions, rather than providing open and reasoned argument.

Education offers the key ingredients needed to tackle ill-informed thinking and potential radicalisation, and evidence-based teaching and interventions are widely recognised as solutions for building resilience to extremism in young people, countering push-pull factors such as low self-esteem, lacking a sense of achievement or feeling out of place in society.

In May 2011 the Department for Education, under the Coalition Government, published a research report titled ‘Teaching approaches that help to build resilience to extremism among young people’, which remains a well-considered overview. The report suggested that well-designed education programmes should:
  • • Feel enjoyable to those taking part and be different from ‘normal’ classroom lessons, featuring discussion, group work and external facilitators while not shying away from controversial issues;
  • • Set tangible goals to build a sense of ownership and sustain involvement through creative projects, such as producing an online report or film;
  • • Be young person-centred and young person-led. Peer educators offer a sense of empowerment and help raise self-esteem;
  • • Produce something ‘real’ to encourage young people to work together collaboratively and foster transferable skills.
Policing debate

The report specifically addressed primary and secondary education in the UK, but why stop there? There is a powerful argument that such sentiments should be carried forward into higher education. Instead, and somewhat inconsistently, the present government, through the Home Office, is seeking to police debate in higher education rather than foster the type of educational environment originally proposed by the Department for Education.

The ‘Prevent strategy’, also first published in 2011 and forming part of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy, highlights statutory powers to prevent ‘apologists’ for terrorism and extremism from entering the UK, or from others gaining a platform either physically or online.

Universities, conceived as a forum for exposing all ideas to scrutiny and reasoned civil debate, are required to police and, if necessary, prohibit speakers at their institutions and report students causing concern to the appropriate authorities.

This policing approach clearly begins to stray into other areas of higher education debate and the role of universities. Post-austerity governments have been keen to stress the functional nature of higher education, foregrounding employability rather than the development of personal resilience and critical thinking skills.

It is an important area of debate as to whether the narrowing of degree topics into greater specialisation undermines the development of ‘functional citizens’, as demanded by a counter-terrorism drive on university campuses.

A liberal arts education

Considering this issue in higher education, there is a strong argument to be made for the liberal arts model of undergraduate education.

While such programmes require a major specialisation, students also have to choose a large number of subjects from a broad curriculum as part of their degree. They are also required to take general education classes, which typically cover critical and scientific thinking, art and cultural appreciation, cross-cultural understanding and numeracy and communication skills.

A liberal education, delivered in a truly international environment, may be the answer to combating the threat of developing extremism and radicalisation in young people. The benefits such programmes provide through the use of a variety of different stimuli, subjects and tools for discussion, are strengthened by dialogue which is centred on the thoughts, ideas and questions of the students themselves.

Effective learning is underpinned by respect for other people’s views, regardless of whether their opinions might be opposing or contrary. No method is perfect and, of course, emotions can always threaten to overtake discussion. This is the beauty of democracy – it’s not about agreeing a specific system, it’s about agreeing a cultural and intellectually safe community that allows individuals to express their thoughts.

Professor Lawrence Phillips is Head of Regent’s American College London, UK.