11 Dec 2013

Key questions: Why are there so many cops on campus?

As students meet on a national day of action to get #CopsOffCampus, Channel 4 News looks at the increasing anger over campus policing.

Students are angred by the heavy police presence on campus (Image: Reuters)

A London University protest which started out criticising the “privatisation” of university education has thrown an unexpected spotlight on the police.

One anonymous Birkbeck student claims that police have been cranking up their presence since the beginning of the year. Writing for the Network for Police Monitoring, the student said other students had noticed it too and together they felt “paranoid, oppressed”.

The student asked: “Who had authorised this? Who has decided that enthusiastic students were a threat that needed to be curtailed?”.

Channel 4 News investigates.

Who authorises police presence on campus?

The number of police on campus is up to each local police force, the Home Office told Channel 4 News.

Universities have their own security units – and these will work with local police.

Are students paranoid, or are there more police?

While there are no official figures for it, in 2011 students were put more firmly on the police radar under the government’s new counter-terrorism strategy: Pursue, Prevent, Protect, Prepare.

The ‘prevent’ part of the strategy aims to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism.

It quotes Home Office statistics that show that more than 30 per cent of people convicted of al-Qaeda associated terrorist offences in the UK between 1999 and 2009 were known to have attended university.

Further analysis of the perpetrators indicated that the average age at the time of their arrest was 25, most were educated in British schools and colleges and many had studied at British universities. Most exhibited degrees of vulnerability, prior to being radicalised.

NUS vice president Colum McGuire told Channel 4 News: “It is true that there is an element of concern around extremism but there is also limited evidence that radicalisation is occurring on our campuses.

He added: “I would argue that any increase in the number of police working with universities and presence on campus is largely down to what you might term the ‘mundane problems’ of burglary and petty theft.

“Over the last 20 years universities have grown exponentially with far more students, tens of thousands in many cases. They very often live in densely packed accommodation and very many own items of expensive IT equipment. As such opportunistic theft threat is a very real part of student life now, and the police quite rightly take this seriously.”

Are there known examples of terrorists with links to UK universities?

In 2004, Jawad Akbar of Brunel University was convicted of conspiracy to cause explosions in 2007 alongside two others – Omas Khyam from London Met University and Salahuddin Amin from the University of Hertfordshire. According to the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), Akbar was resentful of society and attended militant political group meetings while at university.

Shehzad Tanweer, one of the four 7/7 bombers who murdered 52 people on London transport was responsible for detonating a suicide bomb on the Circle Line. The Leeds Metropolitan student is thought to have been radicalised while attending a gym in Beeston, Leeds.

On Christmas Day in 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a University College London graduate, attempted to set off an explosive device hidden in his underwear whilst on board a plane bound for Detroit. At UCL he was the President of the Islamic Society, though the Caldicott inquiry concluded that he was not radicalised while at university.

In May 2010 Roshonara Choudhry was on the verge on completing her degree at Kings College London when she attempted to murder the MP Stephen Timms because he had voted in favour of the Iraq war. A straight-A student, she was radicalised by videos viewed online, particularly those of Anwar al-Awlaki.

Can you really blame the universities?

As ACPO admits: “This does not mean that the universities are at fault for this radicalisation, but where it does happen, Higher Education Institutes have a role to play in identifying and supporting their students.”

When the government introduced the Prevent strategy there was considerable unease. Universities complained that the sector was not properly consulted and there were also concerns that there was an over emphasis on Muslims.

So what about these student protesters?

The current protests are entirely unrelated to terror threats, the Met police has duly acknowledged to Channel 4 News.

Universities exist to shape a democratic, civilised, inclusive society. They also have a key role in promoting rigorous debate, free speech and freedom of enquiry – but as ACPO points out – all this must be done within the law.

Universities have to put up with a wide range of views, regardless of how unpopular they may be.

But it becomes illegal when a student takes a step further and considers using violence to express that view.

And what of the alleged police violence?

A spokesman for the Metropolitan Police told Channel 4 News that the force has received two complaints from two separate people, alleging that they were assaulted by a police officer during a demonstration on 4 and 5 December respectively.

As for the footage doing the rounds online, the Met said officers are reviewing it, adding that it expects all its officers and staff to “behave professionally, ethically and with the utmost integrity at all times”.

The spokesman added: “Generally, everyone has the right to peacefully and lawfully protest and we always encourage those who wish to protest to engage with us as early as possible so that we can work together to organise and facilitate the event.”