Government says figures from first year of the controversial Prevent strategy show that it is working
Nearly 200 university speakers flagged under UK anti-radicalisation scheme
The National staff
British education officials raised concerns about 190 speakers at English universities last year under a controversial government anti-radicalisation programme to prevent students from being drawn into terrorist networks.
The UK government told the sector in 2015 to improve its scrutiny of events and speakers, monitor the behaviour of students, and consider restricting internet use to ensure that “those espousing extremist views do not go unchallenged”.
The measures followed a string of high-profile cases of militant Islamists who were found to have been exposed to extremist views on campus.
They include Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, convicted in 2012 of trying to bomb a passenger flight to Detroit, who repeatedly contacted extremists while studying at University College London.
The government also identified Roshonara Choudhry — who stabbed a member of parliament in May 2010 – as being at least “partially radicalised” while studying at King’s College London. She dropped out of university because of KCL’s work with Israeli institutions and a research centre’s work studying radicalisation.
The figures are included in an assessment of reports filed by 313 educational establishments for 2015-16, the first year of the scheme’s operation.
Concerns about the 190 speakers were raised at the “highest levels” but none are believed to have resulted in events being cancelled, according to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) which monitors the programme. Then security minister John Hayes said in 2015 that it was not intended to be “a de facto ban on speakers with non-violent extremist views” from speaking on campus.
The council said the figures demonstrated that safeguards were working to manage speakers who could be considered higher risk.
It said analysis of the annual reports showed “significant progress” had been made by the higher education sector in tackling abuse, with 95 per cent of universities making “good progress” in putting anti-radicalisation measures in place.
The introduction of the measures have been met by resistance, with critics warning of the “chilling effect” they might have on free speech and the discussion of ideas on UK campuses. Opponents have included Muslim advocacy groups and student organisations.
The scheme is part of the government’s Prevent strategy, an anti-radicalisation programme to “confront and ultimately defeat the threat of extremism and terrorism”. The rules also apply to institutions such as schools, prisons and local authorities.
The interior ministry said that universities hosted at least 70 events in 2014 featuring “hate speakers”, including one event where six named speakers were on record as “expressing views contrary to British values”.
The six included Dr Salman Butt, a British biochemist and the editor-in-chief of the website Islam21C who last week lost a High Court challenge to the Prevent strategy in universities. He had claimed the policy breached the right to free speech.
The judge said the policy had increased bureaucracy but added that “I am quite unable to accept that this evidences some general chilling effect”.
The government claimed that Dr Butt had supported campaigners who sought to justify the violence of Mohammed Emwazi, the British extremist known as "Jihadi John" who is believed to have appeared in ISIL videos featuring the beheading of captives in Syria. He is separately suing the government over the labelling of him as an extremist in their notice announcing the 2015 policy.
The HEFCE report published this week also highlighted differences of opinion within educational institutions about whether internet content should be filtered.
The University of Sunderland said it had introduced web blocking to extremist material across all its networks. University College London said it would not follow the same path on the grounds of academic freedom and to prevent censorship, according to the report. Some 30 establishments have still to take a decision.
The report also revealed that more than 50,000 university employees, including cleaners and security staff, had received training under the programme to spot changes of behaviour in students. Statistics show that youngsters represent the largest number of those arrested for terrorist-related offences, and who seek to travel to join terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq.