21 Feb 2015

New law puts onus on universities to tackle extremism

The new counter-terrorism and security act forces academics to prevent students being radicalised, but many think that the powers go too far.

The act gives the government unprecedented powers to stop Brits who join terrorist groups abroad from returning to the UK. But it also places new impetus on universities to monitor extremism at home.

Higher education institutions will be required to consider government guidance when deciding who may speak on campus at society events and lectures. Academics will have a legal duty to vet the speeches of visiting speakers in advance.

Home Secretary Theresa May said that last month’s attacks on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo highlighted the need to “combat the underlying ideology that feeds, supports and sanctions terrorism”.

“We must all work together as a nation to confront, challenge and defeat extremism and terrorism in all its forms, and stand up and speak out for our fundamental values,” Ms May said.

Freedom of speech

But critics say that the new law will put universities at loggerheads with its obligation to promote freedom of expression.

In a letter to the Guardian early in February, more than 500 university professors signed a letter urging the home secretary to rethink her proposals.

In addition, vice chancellors, members of the House of Lords and the former head of MI5 have also voiced their concerns.

While the university sector acknowledges it needs to tackle extremism, those who are on the front line say some of the current measures are not practical.