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5 February 2015

Why the government’s anti-terror plans won’t work and risk damaging universities

The government wants to introduce legislation that would force a new statutory duty on universities and colleges to, "have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism".

By Sally Hunt

The government’s controversial Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill was taken to task in the House of Lords this week. Peers from across the political spectrum raised concerns about the plans aimed at curbing extremism, which force a statutory duty on universities and colleges to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”.

Opponents of the government’s proposals argued that the plans would seriously curtail the ability of universities and colleges to debate important and controversial issues. These academic freedoms are protected by law, as they underpin not just our country’s global reputation but also our liberal and democratic values.

Leading barrister Robert Moretto, who has advised government departments including the Home Office, Cabinet Office and Department of Justice, said the plans may have been unworkable anyway. In legal guidance he said that parts of the bill clash with the duty for academic freedom currently enshrined in the Education (No. 2) Act 1986, something that was referred to by peers in yesterday’s debate and appears to have been recognised by the ministers.

Other anxieties included those outlined by group of university vice-chancellors who wrote to the Times last week arguing that to be effective in countering terrorism and radicalisation, universities had to remain independent from government.

They said that the new statutory duty should not apply to universities and they should be exempt, as proposed for the security services and judicial bodies, as this would safeguard the universities as places where lawful ideas can be voiced and debated without fear of reprisal.

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Earlier this week over 500 of the UK’s most senior academics wrote to the Guardian expressing similar fears and calling for urgent steps to be taken to ensure that academic freedom remains uncompromised by any efforts to tackle extremism.

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Unamended, we fear this bill would have undermined not only the ability of universities to stimulate public discourse on controversial issues, but also the vital trust between staff and their students. It would also have seriously damaged the attractiveness of our universities to international staff and students.

While peers were unable to pass an amendment that would have seen universities and colleges exempted from the legislation altogether, the government was forced to concede to the strength of feeling and add a new “freedom of expression” clause.

This means highlighting that colleges and universities must properly consider their current freedom of speech obligations when complying with duties to tackle terrorism.

Ministers also announced that the guidance will have to be further debated and approved by a vote in both houses before it becomes law, something that UCU and our fellow critics have been calling for.

So while the government has made positive moves to improve the bill, we feel there is still more that could be done.

However much the government has been pushed to move on the issue it is still that case that colleges and universities are left in a difficult position. We need reassurance that academic freedoms will be protected so there are no grey areas over what can and can’t be debated. We will be looking to advise on future guidance and making clear to what extent different statutory duties conflict with each other. This politicisation of the lawful expression of views is both counter-productive and unnecessary.

Our universities and colleges are centres for debate and open discussion, where received wisdom can be challenged and controversial ideas put forward in the spirit of academic endeavour. The best response to acts of terror is to retain our universities and colleges as open democratic spaces. Draconian crackdowns on the rights of academics and students will not achieve the ends the government says it seeks.

Sally Hunt is the general secretary of the University and College Union and has been leading the opposition to the government’s plans for new terror legislation