Ministers are keen for vice-chancellors to monitor students for fundamentalist leanings — but senior law academics have their doubts over practicalities
Leading law academics cast doubt today on the ability of the government to draft workable legislation forcing universities to shop potentially dangerous religious extremists.
Security minister James Brokenshire was reported to have warned university vice-chancellors they could be jailed for contempt for failing to implement ministerial orders designed to deal with a perceived rising tide of fundamentalists at British universities.
The Times newspaper reported on Brokenshire’s remarks to parliament’s human rights committee, which is currently examining proposed provisions in the Counter-terrorism and Security Bill.
The paper quoted him as saying:
“some extremist preachers have tried to use higher education institutions as platforms for the spreading of a twisted message linked to the underpinning of terrorism”.
But leading legal academics voiced practical concerns. BPP Law School dean Peter Crisp said his intuition was,
“happy to support the government in relation to this difficult issue in principle. But I am curious as to how the legislation would be drafted”.
Crisp described the proposals as “vague” and “difficult to be put into force on a practical level”.
That view was backed by Nigel Savage, the former long-standing chief executive of the University of Law, Europe’s biggest law school in terms of student numbers.
Savage — who retired from the university earlier this year and who this week was appointed as a non-executive director at Merseyside specialist personal injury law firm Fletchers — said the proposals would be a considerable administrative burden on universities.
“It is similar to the issues around foreign student visa applications, when a shift in the responsibility for checking their validity was brought in several years ago,” he said. “This is an even more onerous responsibility. It would be bad enough for the University of Law, which has around 8,000 students — imagine what it would be like for somewhere like Manchester Metropolitan, which has about 40,000 students.”
Both Savage and Crisp forecast the measures would be difficult to enforce without universities allocating large chunks of financial resource to monitoring the statements and even moods of their students. “To an extent that these measure are little more than the government laying off responsibility,” commented Savage. He also pointed to difficulties around subjectivity and interpretation:
“One could imagine there is a thin line between a free-thinking student with an enquiring mind about all sorts of global and political issues, and one that is a borderline fundamentalist,” he said.
“All higher education institutions have a responsibility for the pastoral care of their students. But this requires a great deal of sensitivity – not least because of the religious nature of the issues involved.”