Professor Big Brother and his radical students – who should we fear most?

Under orders to keep watch. Surveillance via bikerriderlondon/Shutterstock

The Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill 2014-15, having been rushed through the House of Commons with alarming speed and ease, has passed its second reading in the House of Lords. It is now in the final committee stages and on course to become law within a matter of weeks.

Although peers rejected a raft of amendments that would have effectively brought the “snooper’s charter” in through the backdoor, the addition of this major piece of terrorism legislation to our existing terror laws still has serious implications and should be of real concern to us all. Not least because it co-opts those of us in the public sector, firmly placing the onus on us to help implement and police strange and draconian new measures.

The bill imposes legal duties on those who work in local authorities, hospitals, councils, prisons, GP surgeries, social care, schools and even nurseries. It demands that they: “must, in the exercise of [their] functions, have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”, reporting to the authorities, anyone they believe to be “at risk” or involved in terrorism.

Shades of McCarthyism

Yes, you read that right. The overbearing surveillance regime of the NSA-GCHQ was clearly not invasive enough. Instead, our most trusted public servants are now being forced to become McCarthy-esque informers, casting a suspicious gaze over the rest of us as they write out a prescription for athlete’s foot, rearrange our refuse collection or assess reading competency on The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

These absurd measures have already invoked anger. As an academic who teaches terrorism studies, what concerns me most is the proposed new statutory duty for universities and colleges to monitor and report extremism. What particularly draws my ire is the suggestion that if the government perceives that we are failing to “fulfil” this dubious responsibility, the home secretary can legally force compliance.

The joint parliamentary committee on human rights has already warned that the new legislation could seriously restrict academic freedom and debate, arguing that universities should be exempted from the list of authorities that the new duty will cover.

Home of radical ideas

It is reassuring that some within the political establishment are just as troubled by the ludicrousness of these proposals as those in universities. But in addition to these well-founded concerns, I would point out another reason to be worried. The university is, both historically and pedagogically, the home of radical ideas, revolutionary beliefs and subversive thoughts, precisely because it is often the first exposure students have to the political world around them.

Just think of all the great political movements that began life on university campuses. Intoxicated by new causes to animate them, and struggles to inspire them, students are inevitably filled with enthusiasm and idealism, albeit often of the naive and unrefined variety. But that is part of growing up, of healthy political socialisation and development. Students don’t just experiment with sex, drugs, and music at university – but ideas too.

Yet the government’s proposals to use academics to engender a climate of suspicion and carry out surveillance by reporting students “at risk” of radicalisation, undermines this very notion of the university as a bastion of free critical thinking and experimentation.

All students under suspicion

If you needed further proof of how at odds these proposals are with the university experience, the government’s Vulnerability Assessment Framework identifies the “risk factors” for radicalisation as including: “a need for identity, meaning and belonging”, “a desire for excitement and adventure”, “a desire for political or moral change”, and “being at a transitional time of life”.

These characterisations are not only so incredibly vague as to potentially include every student in the country, but could only be concocted by old jaded politicians who have forgotten what it was like to once be young, passionate and optimistic about change in the world around them.

Student politics should be encouraged, not clamped down. Dominic Harris/PA Wire

And, to play devil’s advocate here for a second, who is to say political radicalism is necessarily always a bad thing? Rather, radicalism usually indicates a political awakening and a desire to change the world around oneself for the better. We might usefully contrast the political engagement of radicals, no matter how problematic, with the widespread apathy among Britain’s youth in recent years, evident from low voter turnouts among 18 to 24-year-olds in the last few elections.

The fact that so few young people vote when first given an opportunity is surely a damning indictment of the state of young people’s engagement with politics today.

There’s an old adage, attributed to Disraeli, Churchill and others in various guises, that springs to mind: “If you’re young and you’re not a radical, you’ve got no soul; whereas if you’re old and still a radical, you’ve got no sense.” Perhaps that best sums up the important part “radical” politics has played in the normal political socialisation and awakening of young people throughout history. Is it really something to be feared?

The Conversation is partnering with Index on Censorship for its special edition on academic freedom. Read more here.

We produce knowledge-based, ethical journalism. Please donate and help us thrive. Tax deductible.