Counter-terrorism bill could be ‘devastating’ for university freedoms

We’re watching you. Barry Cronin/PA Wire

With the shock from the Paris terrorist attacks barely diminished, attention in a number of Western capitals is understandably fixated on counter-terrorism. Politicians are focused on the question of how future terrorist attacks can be prevented.

One proposed solution is increased powers for the security agencies. This debate is already under way in the UK, with attention at the moment centred on the so-called “snoopers” charter and its potential impact on electronic privacy. Less notice has been paid to the implications for UK universities of the government’s Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill 2014–15, currently proceeding through parliament.

Among a variety of measures, the proposed bill explicitly states that a specified authority, including a university, “must, in the exercise of its functions, have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. This means, for instance, according to the Home Office, that universities “must take seriously their responsibility to exclude those promoting extremist views”. If the government perceives that they are failing to fulfil this “responsibility”, then the home secretary can legally compel them to do so.

This week a parliamentary committee warned that if the bill passes in its current form, the legislation could have a decidedly negative impact on academic freedom and the openness of debate on campus. The committee requested that universities be exempted from the law.

Where’s the proof?

From the government’s perspective, the reason for imposing these duties on UK higher education is simple: vulnerable individuals can be drawn into violent extremism while studying for a degree.

Yet the proof demonstrating a clear connection between attendance at universities and a descent into violent extremism is not concrete. David Willetts, when he was still minister of state for universities and science, admitted to the BBC in 2011 that it is “quite hard to pinpoint whether the university experience was the specific trigger” in cases where individuals, such as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to destroy an airliner with a bomb hidden in his underpants, engage in terrorism.

Historian Christopher Hill was spied on. Wikimedia.

In contrast, evidence exists as to why universities should be wary of a greater security role as mandated by government. During the Cold War, academics, including famous historians Eric Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill, were spied on by the security services because of their left-wing politics.

In the United States, where relevant records are more readily available to independent researchers, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with the frequent complicity of university administrations, targeted a number of staff and students for surveillance. As the work of historian Ellen Schrecker and others has demonstrated, some scholars lost their jobs because of their political views.

Academic freedom under threat

Nor is the implication of security concerns on essential university freedoms an issue that died with the Cold War. In November 2013, the Guardian website published a video recording of a Cambridgeshire police officer attempting to convince a Cambridge University student to become an informant and supply details of fellow students’ activities.

And in December 2014, Canterbury Christ Church University revealed that it had refused a police request to turn over a list of people in attendance at a November 2014 campus debate about fracking in the UK that had been organised by university sociologists.

The ultimate impact of the legislation on universities is impossible to say. Nonetheless, it is not hard to imagine scenarios, including within the classroom, where there may be a legal obligation to report students expressing extreme views because such expressions may represent a step in the descent into violent extremism.

Or they may simply be students exploring a range of unpopular thoughts and opinions, something universities as institutions supposedly encourage. The consequences for free expression on campus could be devastating. A week after the Charlie Hebdo murders, the ultimate result at UK universities may be not more free speech but less.