Extremist voices on university campuses must be engaged with and not margalized, a report from Universities UK (UUK) has urged.
UUK, a university lobby group that represents university principals, claims that students need to be exposed to extremist views in order to challenge them.
The report was commissioned after it emerged that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the man who attempted to blow up an Northwest Airlines flight in 2009, was a former member of the Islamic Society at University College London, although it was concluded that Abdulmutallab had not been radicalized on campus.
The report is concerned with how universities can promote freedom of speech while protecting staff and student welfare. Universities and student societies are to be seen as a safe place where students can express and test extremist views without harming other people in the process. It states:
“Universities are open institutions where academic freedom and freedom of speech are fundamental to their functioning. Views expressed within universities, whether by staff, students or visitors, may sometimes appear to be extreme or even offensive. However, unless views can be expressed they cannot also be challenged.”
Surveys carried out by UUK showed that roughly half of institutions have faced difficulties with extremist speakers. Most ideological difficulties were had when approached by BNP speakers.
The report has been backed by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies.
However, critics claim that it gives little guidance about how to identify and handle individuals with extremist views and that students might not be equipped with the ability to identify extremist speeches as such.
Liam Burns, president of NUS Scotland, said: “Clearly it’s a delicate line to walk when inviting controversial speakers to campus, but our advice to students’ associations will always be that policies such as “no platform”, which excludes speakers who wish to incite fear and hatred from being invited into a students' union, are ultimately in the best interest of their members.
“Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of education, one we need to fight for. But we should never let this principal masquerade as an excuse to put fear into students on their own campus. In this regard, UUKs extremism report is dangerous, misguided and naive.”
A "no platform" policy was rejected at Edinburgh University Students' Association AGM in November 2009.