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Political Extremism

Volume 478: debated on Thursday 26 June 2008

2. What recent assessment he has made of levels of political extremism at universities and colleges. (213861)

Our assessment is that there is a serious, but not widespread problem of support for violent extremist activity on university and college campuses. We are working with universities and colleges to build their resilience by raising awareness of the appropriate response, which must include the promotion of shared values and respect for free and open debate, as well as providing support for students who may be at risk from extremist groups.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. University staff have rightly been urged by the Government to challenge groups that promote terrorism on campuses. As a result, some universities and student unions have banned all political guest speakers. Dealing with that thorny issue prompts the question: where does legitimate free speech end and dangerous extremism begin?

I am not aware—I apologise to the House if I should be—of any university campus that has banned all visiting political speakers. Clearly, I would wish to know where that has happened. The Government have made it clear, including in a lecture by my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education last autumn, that we regard academic freedom and the ability to have even controversial ideas properly examined and contested as a proper and, indeed, essential role of universities and colleges. Throughout, we have tried to draw the distinction between those who are prepared to have their ideas properly examined and criticised, in the atmosphere of a good university, and those who seek to propagate violent, dangerous and illegal ideas, often in surreptitious or underhand ways. I hope that there is no doubt about the Government’s support for academic freedom, not just as a good thing in its own right but as part of our defence of the values that we seek to protect.

I am sure that the Secretary of State is only too aware of the reported cases of terrorism that have been linked to British university campuses. A leading academic expert has called on the Government to ban universities from accepting money from Saudi or Islamic groups to fund Islamic studies, and has also called on all university donations to be made public. Will the Secretary of State explain why his Department’s recent report on preventing extremism in universities contains nothing about financial donations, even those from dangerous extremist groups?

Two important points need to be made. It is true that, in some recent terrorist cases, individuals have been involved who at some point spent part of their careers as students at a college or university. That statement is very different from assuming that they were drawn into violent extremism or organised it as part of their role or attendance at university. One of my criticisms of the academic to whom I think the hon. Gentleman refers is the assumption of an equation between universities as a base for organising activities and the fact that some people involved in terrorist cases have been students. Our guidance is intended to deal with that issue.

The hon. Gentleman seems to believe that any donation from Saudi sources is tainted with terrorism. I think he should be very careful about making such assertions. The Government would certainly be concerned about any donations that were associated with violent extremism, but I am not prepared to accept the equation between Saudi donations to higher education and the promotion of terrorism.